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September 20, 2012

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September 20, 2012

Why don't Africa's politicians invest more in small farmers? The political economy of ag policy.

September 20, 2012
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Interesting if rather impenetrable new(ish) paper from the Future Agricultures consortium on the political economy of AfricanAfrican women farmersagricultural policy. It seeks to answer an important question – why hasn’t the spread of democracy produced more investment in the smallholder farmers that form the majority of the electorate in many countries? Here’s the summary:

“Theories of policy neglect of, or discrimination against, agriculture in Africa include urban bias and the narrow self-interest ofautonomous elites. Whilst structural adjustment removed much of the previous tax burden on African agriculture , the sector also saw declining investment from international development partners and through national budgets. Whilst there has been some recovery in public investment in agriculture over the past decade, signalled by the 2003 Maputo Declaration, investment in the infrastructural and institutional public goods needed to support smallholder-led agricultural growth remains disappointing. As a result, the contribution of the agricultural sector to growth and poverty reduction objectives in Africa is widely believed to have been below potential.

In theory, democratisation, which has proceeded unevenly across Africa during the past two decades, should encourage pro-poor agricultural policy, as the majority of voters in many countries remain rural and poor. This paper draws on case studies of recent policy change (attempted and actual) in eight African countries, plus an analysis of the political systems in these countries, to explore the evolving role of competitive electoral politics in agricultural policy making.

An important observation is that politicians are as likely to rely on ethnic allegiances and forms of social or political control to secure votes as they are to engage in policy competition. Moreover, the political incentives facing senior policy makers in the agricultural and rural development sphere may be inimical to the development of strong institutions to promote smallholder agricultural growth. Instead the paper finds that it is exogenous factors – macroeconomic dependence on agriculture and, most strikingly, sustained threats to regime survival – that create positive incentives for agricultural investment, even where social or political control is relied on to secure votes.”

So what I think Colin Poulton, the author, is saying is that since many African leaders don’t rely on having good policies to win elections, it doesn’t matter much whether those policies are popular with voters. As he later explains:

‘Critically, the argument that democratisation may strengthen political incentives for policy support to smallholder agriculture in Africa assumes that politicians primarily exchange policies for votes. Drawing on existing literature and the country case studies, the paper  argues that this assumption does not hold in most of Africa.’

AFrican Small-FarmersIn fact, they only start worrying about investing in agriculture where, as in Burkina, Malawi or Ethiopia, it is particularly vital to generate the foreign exchange they need to run the government (or buy a new Mercedes), or the whole government is under actual or potential military threat (Rwanda, Ethiopia). When those moments arrive, then political leaders are more likely to remember small farmers and listen to well-meaning technocrats, but at other times they will largely ignore them.

There are a few exceptions like Ghana, where policies do seem to matter more (some great policy debates going on in the current election campaign on issues such as healthcare).

Can civil society help fill the democratic deficit and generate the pressure for change? According to Poulton:

‘In Latin America mobilization of poor groups by diverse social movements (Vanden 2007) arguably began to exert an influence on electoral outcomes around 15 years after the return to democracy. However, there are various reasons why such mobilization might take much longer to achieve in much of Sub-Saharan Africa than in Latin America, including deeper levels of absolute poverty, lower education levels (although recent increases in school enrolment are a positive sign in this respect) and little prior history of awareness raising amongst the rural poor in Africa (some early cooperative development activity aside).’

Your thoughts?


  1. Umm… isn’t it something to do with globalisation?

    The idea is that through, say, structural adjustment, you reduce controls, subsidies and public investment in agriculture?

    Then, as if by magic, the invisible hand of the market will respond and agriculture will boom?

    The problem is, as Joe Stiglitz once said – the reason the invisible hand is invisible is that it doesn’t exist.

    So politicians have been encouraged to neglect agriculture. And if there’s a famine, well Bob Geldorf and Oxfam will surely rally round…

  2. The argument that democratisation strengthens political incentives for policy support to the poor,and that politicians primarily exchange policies for votes, are assumptions that do not hold not just in Africa, but in Asia as well, and not just in relation to small holder agriculture. The interesting point is, if this is the case how far does it challenge our assumptions about the benefits of democracy?

  3. Hi Duncan, always interesting to read about political economy and incentives in policy-making. Emma Broadbent did some research recently for EBPDN and Mwananchi on the political economy of research uptake in Africa, one case study focused on GMOs in Zambia, so a similar area, might interest your readers. She found that in this case Zambian policy makers were experiencing an ‘evidence and communication stalemate’, exacerbated by international actors on both sides of the debate: http://www.mwananchi-africa.org/library/2012/6/7/a-new-political-economy-of-research-uptake.html

  4. Interesting. It raises questions about what is meant by, + what are the most effective forms of “democracy”. I was looking at various studies on Uganda lately. At national level the country is governed by the NRM (“no party, mass movement democracy”). It has created some quite effective programmes such as the National Agricultural Advisory and Developmnent Services (NAADS). Fundamentally though the NRM has transformed local government through an ambitious programme of decentralisation, including fiscal responsibility at some levels, and elections. There are many problems but, there’s also plenty of evidence of real success and progress in farming, support for smallholders and rural development – see e.g. More Effective Natural Resource Management through Democratically Elected Decentralised Government Structures in Uganda, or Impact Assessment of Farmer Institutional Developmnent and Agricultural Change: Soroti District, Uganda, both via http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cdip20 – also, Oxfam – via the ACCRA programme – has recently been involved in improving the sustem further by helping local councillors and government officials improve local development plans and by helping to create better links between the different layers of government, a notable success being achieving a big budget increase (from central government) for district climate change adaptation measures in Kasese, as blogged by Margaret Barihaihi of World Vision at http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog/2012/07/climate-adaptation-a-bold-new-approach-in-rural-uganda

  5. I am yet to read the entire paper, but from the summary provided here, the conclusions are true, and not really new. It would be surprising to find anyone working on issues of smallholder agriculture in Africa who does not know this to be the case,

    I find it rather intriguing that so much effort is spent in pushing for appropriate policies in Africa even though anyone with any knowledge of the ways of African politicians will know that they do not pay any attention to policies in making decisions. The real value of policies is that they provide a rallying point for interest groups and a framework for holding government accountable, but their effectiveness as the basis for decision making is far from certain for now.

  6. “In theory, democratisation, which has proceeded unevenly across Africa during the past two decades, should encourage pro-poor agricultural policy, as the majority of voters in many countries remain rural and poor.”

    We don’t have to go as
    far as rural Africa to question the very notion that democracy serving the majority is an automatism.
    Looking at the “upwards distribution” of wealth in Western Europe and the US and prolific examples like tax payers bailing out banks while the top-bankers of those same banks continue receiving fat bonuses are examples on how this theory/automatism isn’t working.

    What needs to be done to ensure democracy serves the Demos (people/population) in Africa and everywhere else?

  7. Thank you for this. I find your summaries quite helpful for inpenetrable papers!

    Besides the many issues raised by previous commentors, I jumped on this:
    “In fact, they only start worrying about investing in agriculture where […] the whole government is under actual or potential military threat (Rwanda, Ethiopia).”
    Incidentally this is a question that was raised over at Bottom Up Thinking that’s been milling around me brain for a while. http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/when-the-threat-of-war-may-be-good-for-us/

  8. Democracy without equity is not strong enough to change the course of things, we see that also in other places. That the more powerful groups are appropriating societies resources is not an African speciality. Redistribution of wealth is equally important. But also, it is important to realise that elected governments is just a small part of democracy, and that freedom of speech, access to resources and peoples’ own activism is as essential.

  9. I daresay, In Africa, when the poverty stricken smallholder masses who feed the nations and are the backbone of national economies, finally tire of bearing the weight of corrupt ethnic based governments, an awakening will happen, bringing about a revolutionary transformation in politics, akin to the Arab spring. Given the educated youth bulge confined to rural areas for lack of urban jobs, farmers increased access to information, and a growing activism in agriculture sectors, this scenario looks more likely every day.

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