Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa
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‘Viability’ is a key term in debates about land reform in southern African and beyond, and is used in relation to both individual projects and programmes. ‘Viability’ connotes ‘successful’ and ‘sustainable’ - but what is meant by viability in relation to land reform, and how have particular conceptions of viability informed state policies and planning approaches? More broadly, how have different notions of viability influenced the politics of land in recent years? This paper interrogates this influential but under-examined notion, reflecting on debates about the viability of land reform – and in particular about the relevance of small- scale, farming-based livelihoods – in southern Africa and more broadly. These questions are not merely of academic interest. How debates are framed and how success is judged has major implications. With arguments for and against redistributive land reform often hinging on the notion of viability, justifications for public expenditure and budget allocations can be offered if programmes and projects are deemed viable. Conversely, portraying redistributive land reform as ‘unviable’ provides a basis for arguments that this is a poor use of public funds. Yet, despite its centrality in debates about land reform, viability is rarely defined, and its precise meaning often remains obscure.