Despite political oppression and economic collapse, Ken Giller continues his research in Zimbabwe. Why? The Wageningen Professor of Plant Production Systems is trying to do his bit to stem the colossal brain drain from Zimbabwe. ‘Human capacity is of vital importance to rebuilding the country after President Mugabe finally goes.’
‘I was in Zimbabwe for four months last year. Education is collapsing, as many teachers have left the country. An estimated 2.5 million Zimbabweans have fled the country, mainly to South Africa, but also to England – about half a million Zimbabweans are now living in London, or ‘Harare North’ as it is nicknamed. Many of them want to go back when Mugabe goes and the economy of Zimbabwe recovers. But the longer this takes, the more people will stay in their new country, where their kids have grown up. My chief concern is the loss of human capacity, which is vital for rebuilding the country. That’s the main reason I continue collaborating with researchers from Zimbabwe. Apart from that, it’s a beautiful country with fantastic people – I love it.’
You advocate ‘science for impact’ in your research programmes, and you want your research to contribute to development. Is it possible to achieve that objective in a country with severe political oppression and a bankrupt economy?
‘It takes years before science can have an impact on society. I don’t believe in silver bullets. My research is about agricultural system analysis at regional and farm levels, bringing out the diversity and the heterogeneous conditions. These analyses provide insight into which forms of aid and which technologies will effectively support agricultural development.’
‘Yes, it is a problem that the economy of Zimbabwe has collapsed. You cannot buy food and petrol any more in Zimbabwe unless you have US dollars or Rand. I don’t know how the people without access to foreign exchange are able to survive. They had a terrible growing season last year – floods and then drought – so food production was minimal and people are starving. But there is still donor money going to support NGOs in Zimbabwe. Much of that money is used for emergency aid, but some NGOs are also running agricultural projects – and sometimes promoting technologies that are not very effective, our analysis shows. So we can still contribute to making the most of the available resources.’
And what about the political oppression?
‘Many Western donors don’t want to fund government projects in countries like Zimbabwe, in case they are misused for propaganda purposes. I understand that point. But does that mean we cannot support the farmers and scientists any more?’