Poverty as Subsistence
The World Bank and Pro-Poor Land Reform in Eurasia
Mihai Varga


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Poverty Reduction through Land Transfers
chapter abstract

"Propertizing" land reform, although still advocated in the 21st century as the key to global poverty reduction, has replaced landless populations throughout post-communist Eurasia with subsistence smallholders, and has mostly—except in East Asia—failed to spur productivity increases and entrepreneurship. While the World Bank explains subsistence by reference to countries lacking reform commitment, the introduction draws a different perspective, focusing on how reforms impact the local populations' need to have monetized incomes. Propertizing reform decreased the poor's need to earn money to cover their living expenses, while in its later stage, in which it pursued the commercialization of smallholder farming, it increased this need. This approach helps question the simple dichotomy in land reform studies between fast-reforming cases and allegedly reform-adverse countries. Instead, it uncovers important changes to the lifeworld of smallholders, including the increasing capacity to sell products informally.

1 Pro-poor Reforms: The Propertizing Paradigm
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 analyses the World Bank's land reform program through key publications and oral history interviews. It presents the development of land reform ideas in the 1980s and 1990s to argue that the World Bank's land reform proposals are a compromise between the neoliberal focus on structural adjustment and critical receptions of World Bank policies following the Green Revolution. The chapter further argues that the impact of neoliberalism was not so much the stress on markets as a reduction of markets to private property, translating into an emphasis on only a very narrow set of institutional reforms. This set—the land reform program—informed post-communist countries in their approach to poverty and transforming agriculture. Before reaching the post-communist countries, it incorporated one more ingredient: the use of China as reform benchmark for post-communist countries.

2 Pro-poor Land Reform In Eurasia
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 argues that World Bank experts drew support for land reforms in post-communist Eurasia from a selective reading of China's early 1980s pro-poor reforms, reducing them to their land reform component and ignoring the state's role as subsidizer and buyer of smallholder production. This simplified version of China's reforms became an important reference for the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia as these undertook land reform. Chapter 2 shifts to analyze World Bank country-level reports on four post-communist countries: Moldova, Romania, Tajikistan, and Ukraine. It uncovers how the Bank's general expectations differed from results on the ground, leading to policy reformulation. The analysis shows that by the end of the 2000s, Bank-inspired policies prioritized commercialization over reducing poverty, with the underlying understanding of poverty changing from lack of farmland to lack of alternatives to farming.

3 The Reform Continuum: From China to Russia
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 combines the focus on World Bank discourse with an analysis of how land reform in post-communist countries across Eurasia fared against reform outcomes in China and Vietnam. The chapter makes three arguments about the omissions and simplifications in this discourse. First, several countries increased the pace of reforms, handing out property titles and land parcels, yet without experiencing decreases in subsistence. Second, the reforms' focus on poverty reduction was replaced with a focus on productivity and individualization of land use. And third, there was no numerical indicator measuring subsistence at the farm level other than the land plot size, and small farms were assumed to practice subsistence farming simply based on their size. This led to the unverified assumption—questioned in the following chapters—that subsistence is an effect of anything but reforms and that smallholders generally fail to engage with markets.

4 Smallholders: A Fieldwork Study of Resilience and Resistance
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 lays out this book's fieldwork study of smallholders, subsistence, and agricultural value chains pursued in Bukovina. Bukovina is a historical region currently belonging to two countries with contrasting approaches to land reform and differing speeds of dismantling communist rural institutions and propertizing local populations: fast in Romania, slow in Ukraine. Nevertheless, on both sides of the border the region features high smallholder numbers, which authorities characterize as practicing subsistence agriculture. This similarity in outcome allows research to move beyond reducing subsistence to lack of land reform and explore the hypothesis that the labelling of informal economic activities as subsistence hides important developments: the informal commercialization observable among smallholders irrespective of the pattern of land reform enacted and the consolidation through decreasing smallholder numbers from the 2010s on.

5 Resilience: Survival and Growth of Smallholder Agriculture
chapter abstract

Chapter 5 recalls that in most post-communist countries, smallholders produce some of the most basic food staples and after the recession of the 1990s have managed to increase production. The resilience of smallholders is a puzzling development since they hardly benefitted from any endowments. The chapter argues that smallholder resilience works through self-provisioning, understood as internalizing production steps and demonetizing costs. What makes demonetization possible is the smallholders' broader immediate environment, consisting of poor laborers, informal traders, and larger farmers, interacting with smallholders in ways that allow smallholders to grow and control upstream and downstream links in their respective value chains. The research implies that the features of their immediate environments are crucial for the smallholders' growth and survival and should be valued accordingly rather than dismissed in favor of integrating smallholders into the modern, retailer-dominated value chains of the global food economy.

6 Resistance: Smallholders against Commercialization
chapter abstract

Chapter 6 turns to "resistance" as economic practices and mental attitudes that authorities impute to smallholders. National authorities and international advisors promote measures to curb subsistence farming by commercializing smallholder agriculture and increasing the smallholders' monetary needs. They expect commercialization to discipline a sector perceived as resisting economic reasoning and owing its existence not to markets, but to the surviving structures of the communist past, such as the former collective (now corporate) farm. The chapter shows how the resistance imputed to smallholders and others is their very operation in conditions of informality, the land use patterns they practice coupled with the avoidance of state programs promoting producer cooperatives and more profitable crops or animal breeds. But state actions have failed to reduce smallholder involvement in these practices as they overlook the diversity of forms they take and the actors involved in them.

Conclusions: The Limits of Pro-poor Land Reform
chapter abstract

The final chapter argues that the World Bank's treatment of China's and post-communist Eurasia's reforms implies that these countries cannot add much to recipes of pro-poor development: they simply illustrate the market-making benefits of introducing a narrow set of institutions such as property rights. Post-communist Eurasia, however, shows that there was a lot to learn from the enactment of land reform and its outcomes. Poverty reduction and entrepreneurship development are irreconcilable goals if they involve only the transfer of productive assets. And they further show that land reform, even if failing to establish land markets, facilitated the differentiation of commercializing informal producers and traders from smallholders. Given its informality, this post-reform environment hardly benefits from the support of authorities and international organizations, but its existence holds the key to the resilience of smallholder agriculture.