Building impact over time: experiences from Zimbabwe

Ian Scoones, Director ESRC STEPS Centre, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex – Second prize winner of the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding International Impact.

Ian Scoones 1

Generating impact takes time. And this is especially so when research challenges conventional wisdoms and entrenched interests. This is the lesson from our ESRC-funded research in Zimbabwe over the past 15 years, through which we have collected data on changing livelihoods following land reform, now in several parts of the country.

Gradually, evidence has accumulated that challenges the oft-repeated narrative that the Zimbabwean land reform of 2000 was an unmitigated disaster. Instead, a more complex picture emerges: some considerable successes, especially among small-scale farmers, and some failures, perhaps especially on the larger-scale farms.

Impact must emerge through debate and dialogue, informed by evidence. Our research has helped generate this through an array of outputs – including conventional academic material, such as books and journal articles, and also through other routes. An increasingly popular weekly blog has helped update the research, challenge misinformation and generate debate. A series of videos has allowed us to present findings in a different medium, and these have been widely viewed in Zimbabwe and beyond. And a set of booklets, including one in Shona the vernacular language in a large part of the country, has allowed the work to be debated in the villages where we have worked.

But key to sustaining impact is engaging others in new research, and building the capacity to do this. Only when a wider body of research is developed that confirms, extends and sometimes challenges new findings will debate shift. Through our work we have encouraged the building of capacity necessary for having an impact. In 2010 we announced a small grants competition, together with the University of Zimbabwe and others, and this generated much interest. Open to Zimbabweans undertaking postgrad research, there were 15 winners, each of whom were supported to carry out original field research in different parts of the country. The resulting papers added to a growing body of work being carried out by colleagues at different Zimbabwean universities and research institutes.

Building capacity for critical and engaged research is a sure route to longer-term impact. This is why linking research with training – particularly PhDs – is especially productive. As more and more researchers, students and others have done research on the impacts and consequences of land reform, they too have found that the story of Zimbabwe’s land reform is not so simple. Our original work was in Masvingo province, but new work in all parts of the country has shown broadly similar patterns. Contrasts and differences also point to regionally-specific challenges, whether the importance of former farmworkers in the Highveld or the role of livestock in the dry south.

You cannot expect to have sustained impact in a three or even five year project. It takes time. And building capacity among a wider group of students and researchers is a long-term endeavour. Since 2000, and with support from various sources, including the ESRC, we have been able to generate evidence, build capacity and share results in order to generate debate about implications. Fifteen years on our work is not over, and continues across different sites, and through multiple collaborations. The story of Zimbabwe’s land reform and its aftermath continues to attract wide attention and generate vigorous debate. Solid empirical research from a variety of sources is essential to inform this, and to build impact over time.

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