Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Snow and research methods

The snow is gone in Minnesota, at least in our garden.

No recent visits to Uzbekistan to report, and, alas, the Georgia trip planned for the summer I cancelled for want of time and money. (Luckily, there is the Dutch Queen's day to look forward to -April 30th) But we are still in touch with the people in Bonn and Urgench, and, yesterday the last of the Uzbek papers was sent out. At least, the last one of the main pile. Once things are fully accepted, I will share more details, in an attempt at shameless self- promotion.

We wrote on land consolidation, on the shifting roles of knowledge in rural governance, on transformation of organizations in the agro- support system, on the different forms of capital deployed in the ongoing rural transition and on patterns of policy integration.

While working on these papers in the last few months, I realized how much more there is to learn, about past and present in Uzbekistan. Much of the work I was/am involved in, has to do with an ongoing and uncertain restructuring of the rural economy, in a situation under many pressures, economic, environmental, political. Some changes are fast, others slow, some are systematically and consistently implemented, others not, some are emanating from the political center, others not, and all parties involved are cautious and ambiguous.

As to the point of learning, so in fact research method, I felt there are conundrums. No obstacles that are insurmountable, disabling research totally. But still. (ZEF people published a good book where many of them are analyzed: Wall & Mollinga, Fieldwork in difficult environments, LIT, 2008) Just a few observations.

Yes, I should have worked harder on my Russian. And I should have studied more on Uzbekistan itself before going there. But then, my relative ignorance was also helpful, probably made me less suspicious.

Going back, spending more time, talking to more people would be useful. Usually, once embedded in certain circles, it is easier to get better access to more and more people. But then, the opposite is also true. I noticed that too much time spent with a certain type of people made colleagues, superiors and other people wary. Doors opened, but at a certain point they closed again. More time did not translate in more trust and more connections.

Documents could have deepened the analysis. But then, many of those, from Soviet times and later are part of a system where the actual role of documents cannot be read or inferred from the documents themselves, whether one is dealing with policies, laws, scientific publications or maps. Finding a document might take so much time that other aspects of the research suffer, and looking too hard might make people suspicious, might squander precious and scarce social capital.

Without the support of the project and the people in Urgench, my work would have been impossible, without their accumulated experience and without their support and connections. Yet, spending more time there could also be a strain on them, and with the type of investigations I am interested in, they might also incur a 'debt' with many people in their network, just by asking them to talk to me or to find people to talk to me. Interviews are favors, sometimes perceived as risky.

Slower and deeper acquaintance with one community would have been helpful, more time in the village. Indeed, but talking to so many other actors in other places, necessary for the research, would look funny there.

On a positive note: talking to retired people proved very fruitful overall. Also, talking to people who were in similar roles in the Soviet era, brought insight. Looking back, I think risk was everywhere, the risk to be entirely wrong, but research method in environments like Khorezm entails spreading and sharing of risk. And a continuous reflection on such risk management.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Land tenure (a short reflection)

Do people need to own land in order to be motivated to work it? Or to find more efficient or profitable ways to do so? Million dollar questions. I am currently working on several papers based on the Uzbek experience, and these questions come back over and over again.

Many economists, especally in the American tradition, assume or 'prove' that ownership, expressed and codified in strong, almost absolute property rights, is the only way forward, the only path to economic development. Many of those assume that simply changing formal property arrangements will push an economy forward.

Many anthropologists direct the attention to the disturbance of endogenous, often highly complex arrangements for sharing the land, its resources, its products, when formal property regimes are imposed. Economies can collapse, in stead of develop, and the rule of law can be wiped out, in stead of reinforced. They would also point out, together with a number of geographers and political scientists, that the move from one property system to another one can be exceedingly difficult and extremely hard to keep transparent and fair.

The transaction costs, in other words, can be very high and unpredictable, and the transition itself can make it harder to re- establish a semblance of a market afterwards. They would also argue that the new rules of the game, and the implicit rules to make gains at the outset of the game, are known to only a small elite, either western, or controlling the transition. Knowledge is an asset then, distributed unevenly, knowledge on rules and taking positions, but also knowledge on the exact pathway of transition, on the situation at any given moment. And power is an asset, the power to establish and define a new regime, and certainly the power to enforce the new rules in the old environment. By elites imposing property reforms, the rhetoric of development, of scientific improvement and of progress, are usually combined.

What to do then? And what to think? First of all, I think it is useful to look at property rights as a specific bundle of use rights and a specific bundle of limits to that use. This is also true in the States. Also, even in the States, cooperative property and collective property are possible, and spatial planning is possible. Thus, the serf in the Russian empire (See map), and the kolkhoz worker in the USSR had officially no property, and sometimes worked under conditions we could call 'oppression', but certainly not all the time. Through a web of other rules and shared understandings, they had an input, and could not be forced to do whatever elite members wanted them to do. Everyone familiar with older Rusian literature, will recognize that.

Secondly, formal property rights only mean something if they have implications. Much research on post- Soviet land privatization has revealed that the participation of most locals in decision- making on land use is less substantial now, while new local and regional elites amassed power. Owning a piece of former kolkhoz means nothing at all, if local governments, in league with only superficially 'private' farners, make it impossible to use it, to extract profit.

Thirdly, one can observe that uncertainty has a double face. Uncertainty can inspire risk- taking, innovation, and high profits for smart entrepreneurs, but there are always limits. If uncertainty is too high, risks too unpredictable, and if it does not look like the profits can be enjoyed or reinvested at will, then the incentives are not there. In that sense, the American economists seem right; property rights can clarify the rules of the game, can smoothen transactions (e.g. of land), and can protect against sudden intrusion of different rule- sets or expectations. On the other hand, if those rules are mostly paper rules, they will make the game of land use and profit extraction only more complex and thus opaque.

What does this say about Uzbekistan? We would argue that privatization as such is not necessarily a solution there. Rather, unpredictability seems to be the problem. If land can be taken away, if profits can disappear from bank accounts, if water can materialize or not, the incentives to work hard, to innovate and to invest are indeed slight. Rather than privatization, simplification of the rules seems in order, as well as a consistent effort to reduce the distance between the paper rules and what is really expected and possible. Even an informal codification, of rules to apply the rules, would help.