THEWORLDTODAY.ORG DECEMBER 2007
MICHAEL KEATING is United Nations Permanent Representative in Malawi and was a speaker at the recent Chatham House members’ conference. LAURA COLLINS also contributed to the article.
expressed by some donors about the wisdom of pursuing a scheme that stifled entrepreneurship and did not sharply distinguish between those able to afford to buy and those not. Some were wary of any subsidy scheme, inviting accusations of hypocrisy given the massive American and European subsidies to their farmers. Others made the case that the fertiliser subsidy should not only be universal, but free, and that this was a real opportunity for the G8 leading industrial nations, only weeks after their Gleneagles summit, to put their money where their mouth was. The target for some was the amorality of economists with no understanding of human security; for others, it was the irresponsibility of campaigners creating false expectations with no moorings in financial reality. The credibility of any government, not least in Malawi, depends on its ability to meet basic food needs. The president’s determination to go through with the subsidy scheme, along with awareness among development partners of their mixed track record in providing coherent and consistent support in the agriculture sector, won the day. The upshot is that Malawi is now entering a third year of a targeted seed and fertiliser scheme, one strongly supported by partners, including Britian’s Department for International Development, the European Union and the UN. Despite its success, helped by two good years of rain, the scheme has been beset with problems, ranging from late government purchase of seeds and fertiliser, irregularities in the distribution and redemption of coupons, fertiliser shortages, the crowding out and near collapse of the network of rural private sector dealers, poor communications and too much politically damaging rumour. In its second year, many of the problems persisted, but some were dealt with. Donor financial and technical support has helped bridge the deep distrust between business and government, with the result that the private sector is now involved in purchasing, distribution and coupon redemption. The outcome is improved access for farmers to the materials they need. The economic returns from the scheme have yet to be fully calculated but are likely to show that its cost to government has been more than recovered. The export of maize has generated precious foreign exchange. The humanitarian and social benefits are more difficult to quantify. One saved cost may have been an expensive humanitarian operation, such as the country needed in 2004 and 2005.
GREEN REVOLUTION So has there been a revolution? Or is this just another swing in the country’s fortunes? After all, Malawi has a recent boom and bust history in the agriculture sector, with good harvests interspersed with recurrent food shortages over the past decades. The optimistic argue that much now depends on whether the subsidy scheme can be used to reduce dependence on subsistence agriculture, not least as it is statistically highly likely the rains will fail in one of the coming rainy seasons. This requires the introduction of new agricultural techniques, greater crop diversification, access to micro-credit, especially by women, enhanced health and nutrition, improved education and adult literacy, better water management, investment in agribusiness and the strengthening of markets to buy seed and fertiliser and to sell agricultural produce. Many such activities are already taking place, but not systematically nor on a national scale. The Millennium Villages established by Professor Jeffrey Sachs are intended to showcasewhat can be achieved – starting with surge support for multifold increases in maize production. But a lasting revolution must have political and governance underpinning. Technical interventions and sustained support from donors are critical but insufficient. Food security and agriculture policies remain vulnerable to populist politics, particularly if the rains fail or when elections approach. Whether improvement in maize production will trigger broader economic and social transformation depends on the capacity of technocrats to plan and drive forward an economic growth programme, and the capacity of officials in the districts to implement it. It also depends on the government being responsive and accountable, both politically and financially, to small holder farmers, entrepreneurs and ordinary people. So it is too early to declare a green revolution in Malawi? Two, three and even four years of bumper maize harvests may turn out to be just another revolution in Malawi’s wheel of fortune, and its people will remain as vulnerable as ever. But in the last few years, a great start has been made. A winning combination has been found: leadership by government, a role for the private sector and coherent support from development partners around a shared agriculture-led, economic growth agenda. This needs to be sustained and buttressed by reinforcing implementation capacity and more robust political accountability.
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