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

September 20, 2012 9 By admin

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?