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Introduction 

In 2021 Rethink Priorities authored an interesting intervention report on agricultural land redistribution. In this post I revisit that controversial topic.

 

Theory of change

Food production 
 

Agricultural land redistribution is a reform in which large farms are broken up and distributed to tenants or landless peasants. The original author’s central argument for the potential impact of land redistribution is that redistribution creates smaller farms and there's some evidence that smaller farms have higher yields and higher per-acre yields resulting in a higher total output.

Wealth

The original authors don't focus on what I'd expect is the more important impact: the poor will be richer. GiveWell illustrates the centrality of wealth for impact: GiveWell’s recommendation of deworming charities is driven by size of the income gain, even though the evidence on deworming is ambiguous, as it currently appears to be for land redistribution. Comparably, GiveDirectly is itself a wealth transfer.
 

Tractability

South Asia

The original authors (the authors) weakly held the view that South Asia is the best region to attempt land redistribution today: South Asia exhibits a high degree of land inequality, a large (and in some areas politically influential) class of poor farmers, and a modest history of land reform.

The authors may not have realised just how tractable land redistribution in South Asia could be. Since Indian independence, there has been voluntary and state initiated/mediated land reforms in several South Asian states. The most notable and successful example of land reforms are in the Indian states of West Bengal and Kerala. 

Delivery partners

There are multiple communist parties in India however the largest is the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Communists have been in Government in Kerala since 1957 have been routinely voted into power by championing the politics of radical land redistribution and rapid advances in literacy. Previously, West Bengal was ruled by a communist alliance for over three decades where land was distributed amongst 2.4 million landless and poor farmers.

Track record

As noted by the original authors, when redistribution has succeeded globally it has been accompanied by extensive agricultural support, such as rural infrastructure development, subsidies for fertilizers and high-yield seeds, agronomic training, and cheap credit. I am no expert and these facts are worth checking but have read that im Kerala, the Communists produced a 95 percent literacy rate, the highest in India, the highest HDI of any state in India (0.784), the second-smallest poverty rate in India (behind the small state of Goa), the highest life expectancy in India (77 years) and the second-most urbanized state in India (47.7%; behind Goa). 

Room for more advocacy

Radical land reforms in Kerala were first led under Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969 which abolished the right to use farmland in exchange for rent. However, redistribution itself was slow and the Government by 1988 had distributed only 25000 hectares which accounted for 3.2% of the promised available land. There remains significant room for advocating further redistribution that could be explored by further investigation in detail for relative cost-effectiveness with other opportunities.

Donation opportunities

One of the central reasons the original authors did not recommend investigating land redistribution further was their observation that there appear to be no large and reputable NGOs that advocate for radical land redistribution. There are however large and reputable ‘government‘ organizations that advocate for radical redistribution: the aforementioned Indian communists.

I don’t know why there aren’t known land redistribution Non-Government Organizations but I suspect that may be because Marxists are often critical of charity and marxist have played significant roles in land redistribution efforts. What that could mean for whether an appropriate NGO could be started by Effective Altruists, or whether Communist would be willing, lawfully able and willing to use foreign donations requires further thought if this cause is investigated further.
 

Scale - population 

Of the 1.2 billion people worldwide living in dollar poverty, over 43 percent are found in South Asia. Of these, 970 million (72 percent) live in rural areas. Approximately 150 million households, with 751 million people, can be classed as agricultural.

Animals

A considerable number of small ruminants could also be affected by land reforms. The rice farming system is concentrated in Bangladesh and West Bengal, with smaller areas in Kerala. The rice farming system contains 50 million bovines, used for draft power, milk and manure. 

 

Neglectedness: poverty and malnutrition 

Despite improvements in national food security over the last three decades, benefits have not yet reached the entire population of the region. The UN FAO estimates that 254 million people are still undernourished.

 

Risks

Violence 

In 2019, a forum post on communism and socialism for Effective Altruists broadly concluded that there is  good evidence against socialist ideas. The degree to which those concerns generalize and or could spill over here requires attention. The potential impacts of funding a communist organisation on regional and world politics should also be considered, with India neighboring communist China -  a rival to the US, and the US has been good to effective altruism.

Conversely, between 1950 and 1980, under Mao's influence, China experiencing the most rapid sustained increase in life expectancy of any population in documented global history, attributable mainly to public health and education campaigns. 

There are complicated spill overs from land reform initiatives in India in particular. Tribal people have lost their land through redistribution (including the aforementioned redistribution efforts led by other non-Maoist communists) to either to non-tribals or to the state-led development projects. Maoist insurgents in India have successfully mobilized people against acquisition of their land by non-tribals and the state and there seems to be a strong negative correlation between the successful implementation of land reform measures and Maoist activity. Hoever there is limited evidence and mixed reports about the guerrillas governance of captured territory on food security and redistribution to tribals. Armed conflict between the Indian state and Maoists since 1997 has seen an estimated 6000-8000 civilians killed. 

Please note, the term tribals strikes me as insensitive as a foreigner, but it appears to be the standard term. If someone knows better please correct me.

Reputation

There may also be both reputation risks and reputational benefits for effective altruism. Aligning with a stereotypically communist policy would alienate some people. However, the reputation - political, and cultural capital of Effective Altruists has historically been damaged more so by association with capital - billionaires and bankers, than radical policies like support for migration or land use reform. That said, billionaires and bankers have supplied considerable funding in the short term. Altogether, I feel we should be tolerant of reputational risks associated with left leaning policies for the time being as even failures may rebalance perceptions of effective altruism’s political impartiality. 

 

Declaration of interests

I have no affiliation with Rethink Priorities. I have no affiliation with GiveWell other than as a donor. I have no political affiliation, but I was previously a member of a centre-right political party in a country that is not India. I have since renounced that membership.
 

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Worth remembering there are also left-coded objections to distant Westerners meddling in countries they don't really understand. Though of course there are Indian EAs who could take this up, and while maybe they mostly don't understand life for Keralese peasants all that well either, given the likely demographic background of most EAs, the ship has definitely sailed on middle-class Indians meddling in the lives of peasants. On the other side, there's at least one semi-well known book from an author with fairly right-wing market-orientated views about what developed countries should do who thinks land redistribution is great: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-how-asia-works
 

I'm very fascinated with the Kerala Model and it's apparent success. I haven't looked into it in-depth but it seems like it has similarities to the Nordic Model.

Would be keen for some economic development people to share their thoughts.

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