Incentives matter


Famine stalks Ethiopia once again:

The spectre of famine has returned to the Horn of Africa nearly a quarter of a century after the world's pop stars gathered to banish it at Live Aid, raising £150m for relief efforts in 1985. Millions of impoverished Ethiopians face the threat of malnutrition and possibly starvation this winter in what is shaping up to be the country's worst food crisis for decades.

Yes, of course we should buy food and feed it to the starving. It's difficult to think of any system of morals worthy of being called such that would deny them that or us that duty. However, while we go looking down the back of the couch for that spare change which will keep our fellow human beings alive, it's still worth pondering why this keeps on happening.

Land ownership is another important election issue. The opposition believes the best way to fight poverty is ending the state's ownership of all land, and argues farmers must be free to buy and sell property and develop wealth. The government insists the state must own land, arguing it gives more security to farmers.

Yes, all land is State owned. There is no incentive for a farmer to invest in improving the productivity of his land for it simply ain't his land. In more detail, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister:

Now we have, as I am sure all of you know, rejected the concept of changing land into a commodity in Ethiopia. We feel that this choice in our context is not economically rational. That is why we don’t accept it. Why do we think it is not economically rational? By fully privatizing land ownership, one starts the process of differentiation. The creative, vigorous peasant farmer gets to own larger pieces of land and the less effective get to be left to live in doubt.

He then goes on to reject this and insist that as they have lots of peasants thus they should have lots of peasant farms. Oh, and, while the land is held by the peasant "in perpetuity" the government still reserves the right to reallocate at any time. So it's not actually in perpetuity and of course as it cannot be owned privately it cannot be used as security for a loan to improve its productivity.

Until those incentives are sorted out Ethiopia is condemned to have repetetive famines, sadly.

Just for a little further illumination, Zenawi, after a couple of years medical studies, joined the "Marxist Leninist League of Tigray" where he presumably got his education in economics. The MLLT were Hoxaist. That is, the people who thought that Joe Stalin had actually got it right on agriculture.

Which, if you want to starve the peasantry, is probably correct.