Limits to history’s lessons: What’s missing from Ha-Joon Chang’s take on agricultural policy? Guest post by Sally Baden

Sally Baden, Oxfam’s women and agriculture specialist, takes another look at the new book on agricultural policy reviewed yesterday

After some lobbying from Duncan, I sat down to read Ha-Joon Chang’s book in January. Sadly reading weighty tomes SallyBadenon agricultural policy is something I don’t have the luxury of doing very often since my younger days as a student of agricultural economics. But, in this instance, I was glad in to do so, having greatly enjoyed some of HJC’s more popular works

In many ways,  I share Duncan’s enthusiasm about the timeliness and relevance of this book and its challenge to the ‘New Conventional Wisdom’ (NCW). I’m not sure there is as much consensus around the NCW as HJC’s device suggests (perhaps it’s a bit of a ‘straw man?’). Wasn’t there a mea culpa around the 2008 World Development Report (WDR) for the Bank’s earlier overzealous promotion of market liberalisation as the solution to agricultural development?    

But hell, if straw men help to shake more people out of complacency and lazy orthodoxy, the need could not be greater. As with the financial crisis, the food price crisis has exposed some critical failures and fatal consequences – for some – of policy makers’ thinking about developing country agriculture.  Even hardened market believers are – to some degree anyway – being forced kicking and screaming into considering (if not actively implementing) more interventionist approaches.   

The historical evidence underlines the degree of hypocrisy in now industralised countries’ prescriptions to others. Their agricultural development has relied heavily on state intervention and – huge subsidies and other support that – at $252 billion in 2009 – dwarfed the level of official aid to developing county agriculture – only $9.8 billion in the same year.   

But is the main reason why developing countries are not being more interventionist due to the NCW? While it may be true that the intellectual influence of the ‘NCW’ is pervasive among developing country policy makers, this standpoint perhaps understates the role of national actors themselves. At the same time, the wider global context – and the systemic challenges which this poses to agricultural development (notably liberalised trade; climate change, global market volatility, degradation of natural resources, the spread of pandemics) are clearly not amenable to national public policy interventions alone but require global public policy responses. 

The analysis and examples focus on a range of policies within the agricultural sector itself (with some passing reference to education and trade policies). While recognising that not all of these are relevant or applicable today, there is nevertheless a primary argument that a basic ‘menu’ exists from which technically informed choices could be made.  This leaves the wider forces at play largely unexplored. 

The account is relatively light on the political economy of why particular policies might be favoured – or be feasible – in different contexts and how changes in the type of agricultural public policy or reforms being applied have come about  – or might take place in future.

combine harvesters in Latin AmericaThe NCW and associated undermining of ‘policy space’ in agriculture in many instances comes from wider macroeconomic policies or international trade agreements. At national level there is often a lack of policy coherence e.g. between land policies and investment prerogatives. While smallholder land rights may exist in theory, in practice governments often over-ride the needs and rights of specific populations when they want to pull in large investors. 

There is allusion to the weak power of agricultural ministries (in the face of finance ministries – a tendency only strengthening in these days of austerity in the north) but the wider issue of power and politics in public policy formulation and implementation is not very explicit. While there are some encouraging tendencies here, such as decentralisation of decisions and resources to local governments that may be more responsive to small farmers’ needs; democratisation and the spread of mobile technologies; the enhanced capacities of small scale farmers to organise and share information – there remains a wide gulf between government bureaucracies and poor rural populations, particularly the more marginalised groups among these. 

Political elites are not generally either representative of, or hugely responsive to, rural populations and as urbanisation proceeds apace this seems unlikely to change. Within organised agricultural lobbies, small farmers’ voices are frequently excluded or submerged, particularly where medium and large scale farmers are a significant part of the landscape as in much of Latin America and southern Africa. Getting the voices of rural women heard by policy makers in ways that actually effect change is a struggle which is still in its infancy,  at least in Africa. 

And on some key issues history may have less to tell us about public policy on developing country agriculture going forward: 

  • The fundamental idea – core to Oxfam’s GROW campaign – that we are operating in a world of resource constraints – and particularly natural resource constraints – is largely absent from the book. Specifically, there is almost no mention of the threats to the sustainabilty of agriculture and thereby to food security posed by climate change or peak oil. Instead we have a rather ‘modernisation-as-usual’ paradigm underpinned by support for subsidies for chemical fertilisers as a means of policy intervention (rather than, say, incentives to adopt more agro-ecological approaches).  Governments need to prioritise policies, investments, and technologies which sustain the natural resource base on which small farmers and hungry populations depend, and – with international financing – focus investment resources in adaptation to climate change on small scale, African woman farmervulnerable farmers.    
  • HJC’s book does not at all address how state policies as well as market systems have often acted to marginalise particular social groups – especially women farmers. For example, cooperative laws and practices that exclude women as farmers in their own right, thus reinforcing patriarchal social norms; extension and other services that don’t reach women; entrenched social and legal inequalities in land rights. The huge issue of unpaid work performed by rural women due to gendered social norms and lack of basic services is not addressed, or the – related – gender gap in agricultural productivity. Looking forward, as the Committee on World Food Security proposed last October, Goverments need to promote women’s rights and recognition as farmers and enact changes that redistribute services and resources towards women smallholder farmers, in particular those which alleviate time poverty. At the same time they need to better understand processes of demographic and social change in rural areas and how these will affect the future of agricultural systems.
  • We have moved from a situation of a lack of both public and private investment in agriculture to private funds actively seeking opportunities in developing country agriculture. But quite often this investment is driven by biofuels mandates, lack of other investment opportunities, the promise of increasing land values or by food-importing countries’ and companies’ concern with security of supplies of food and commodities, rather than the concerns of long-term agricultural development. Governments need to responsibly promote and regulate this investment with an eye to its consequences for small–scale farmers and national food security. European governments need to stop providing indirect incentives for landgrabbing and developing country governments need to provide adequate safeguards – for both people and the environment – from predatory or speculative investment. 

Overall, though, HJC’s latest book is to be commended for putting smallholder agriculture at the centre of the policy debate. And it brings into the spotlight in fascinating detail the lesser known story of the heterogeneous range of agricultural policies and institutional innovations tried in both developed and developing countries. Combining such rich historical analysis with deeper understanding of current challenges, opportunities, trends and constraints, can also help us to imagine complex and diverse future scenarios in our food and agricultural system. We can indeed hope (as HJC does) that it will ‘free the imagination’ of developing country policy makers, researchers and students. An invaluable resource – as long as history remains the servant of new thinking, not the master.

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