Politics, policies and agriculture: the art of the possible in agricultural development

Achieving pro-poor growth through agriculture: the challenges

Friday, 25 November 13.00–14.30, at Overseas Development Institute, 111 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7JD

Politics, policies and agriculture: the art of the possible in agricultural development

Speaker: Peter Bazeley, founder and Senior Partner of the IDL group until its acquisition by AHG this year, now a freelance consultant and farmer. Extensive experience on agriculture sector reform in Africa and Asia.

Discussant: Steve Wiggins, ODI Research Fellow

Chair: Andrew Shepherd, ODI Research Fellow

Audio (listen to the meeting)
Peter Bazeley (1)
Peter Bazeley (2)
Discussion (1)
Discussion (2)

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Peter Bazeley (see his presentation) started by noting that failure characterises the context on which to talk about agriculture reform processes in Africa and that a different paradigm is needed on how to reform agriculture in order to have a real impact on growth and livelihoods.

He identified three important contextual factors for analysing agricultural policy processes. The first of these is that there has been insufficient response in the agriculture sector (in terms of scope and scale) to technological change, institutional reforms (changing the rules of the game) and policy adjustments – he noted that the sector is not achieving what it has to achieve. The second factor is that there are two concurrent processes in the sector with regards to reform: aid effectiveness and modernisation of government agenda in donor countries, running parallel to a focus on policy and institutional reform as a means to achieve change. The third contextual factor is that agriculture, despite the rhetoric, is not doing well in terms of featuring large in PRSPs, or as a beneficiary of improved country-led programming under budgetary support, etc.

Although policy process was the focus of the talk, he noted that on the substance of policy few important things have happened since structural adjustment and liberalisation the Green Revolution, for example, which was supposed to be something applicable to Africa, has not happened in the continent.

Making reference to the work of the Imperial at Wye school (work by Dorward, Kydd and Poulton) Peter stressed the importance of the concept of development coordination. He noted it is not about multi-stakeholder coordination – between donors or coordinating projects or programmes across development partners and governments but about balancing and sequencing technical, market, institutional and policy fixes, recognising the multiple factors at play and the interlocking of local, national and international factors.

On the processes of agriculture policy reform, Peter remarked that we are still largely talking about Sector Wide Approaches (SWAps), despite what many have concluded about their poor performance in agriculture. He argued that the agriculture sector (as well as in other sectors) is still equated to a single (or more, in some countries) organisational structure (Ministry), despite the fact that required reform processes stretch well beyond those structures. The (bold) assumptions underlying the SWAp approach are that the Ministry of Agriculture has the mandate as far as agricultural sector reform is concerned, that sectoral reform processes are to be delegated to the sector technocrats and that this it puts boundaries around scope, scale and capacity. The fundamental problem, Peter noted, is that the debate and experiences have turned these approaches and instruments (such as SWAps) into ends in themselves the complexities of the mechanisms of putting them in practice and the long time horizons required to achieve change have distracted attention from the substance of reform (the actual objectives of reform). The targets used by government and the development community are typically much shorter-term and they do little to address longer-term reform processes.

Peter noted that he did not expect to be talking about SWAps in the middle of this decade, but that in Africa, both governments and donors are in practice saying that this is the way they want to go forward. SWAps in agriculture have not worked. Despite the years of intense activity and investments around SWAps, farmers have not yet seen tangible benefits from them. Sectoral programmes have tended to work better in other sectors, such as Health and Education. But in the agriculture sector, the approach is harder to apply ,not least because of the centrality, importance and size of the private sector, with which SWAps have failed to engage. He added that agricultural SWAps have largely failed to capture non-agricultural determinants of agriculture productivity and growth. This has led to enormous impatience and to the (probably wrong) conclusion that the problem was with the instrument’s design which led to multiple reorientations and re-starts, perpetuating the focus around process rather than substance.

Peter Bazeley argued that the determinants of agricultural livelihoods and growth often lie outside a ministry of agriculture’s scope of activity. He illustrated this by providing examples of what participatory poverty assessments (and similar exercises) identified as the determinants of agriculture productivity and growth, in three countries (Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda). Peter noted that only a few of these (such as production technology and information) fall within the mandate of ministries of agriculture that usually lead on agriculture sector reform. However, other issues such as security, justice, contract enforcement, transaction cost, etc. are key for the sector, but are not about the core business of ministries of agriculture.
What is needed, Peter suggested, is stronger development coordination, which implies a reconfiguration of large-scale high influence policy actions and investments across multiple spheres of public interest. There have been some attempts (although incomplete) of tackling the issue of cross-sectoral reconfiguration.

The Ugandan Plan for the Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) was presented as an attempt, at least at its inception, to get the needed cross-sectoral reconfiguration. The original idea behind the PMA, led by the Ugandan Ministry of Finance (not the Ministry of Agriculture), was to reconfigure the governance framework of the rural sector, superimposed with decentralisation objectives. The reform envisaged through the PMA saw agriculture reform as a matter to be tackled by a range of different policy actors, beyond the Ministry of Agriculture alone, filling the gaps between sectoral interventions. But practice proved very different. The PMA ended up largely being absorbed into the Ministry of Agriculture which resisted reform through vehicles not led by the Ministry itself. Earlier innovative attempts both to fund at the district level as well as to constitute a non-sectoral policy and investment forum to deal with cross-cutting issues, backed by basket funding from donors, ended up being watered down.
The “Enabling Environment for Business with a Particular Emphasis on Agriculture” experience in Zambia could, to some extent, be seen as an example where some innovative reform processes were tried. There the focus was directed towards building capacity (empowering) of the private sector and civil society to demand a better supply of policies in the sector. There was an effort to create new spaces for policy contestation from independent stakeholders.

In Kenya, the Strategy for Revitalizing Agriculture (SRA) poses interesting challenges on how to achieve supra-ministerial coordination. But the process is still too new to comment on achievements.

An interesting example from Kenya comes though from the justice, law and order sector. The Governance, Justice, Law and Order Sector (GJLOS) programme emphasises innovative mechanisms of cross-sectoral coordination, and a strong move towards an effective sector-wide perspective. This provides example on how sector-specific issues are determined by other sectors’ problems/issues overcapacity of prisons, for example, is related to the capacity of the judiciary, which in turn is related to performance in public prosecution and in policing all of which are under different ministries and agencies of government. GJLOS thus constitutes a governance framework which could be a source of inspiration for the agriculture sector. For example, Thematic Groups have been created which advise cabinet level committees on how the government should allocate resources. The Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) is central to resource allocation decisions, on the basis of the thematic group analysis and proposals.

Peter argued how important the MTEF seems to be (or could be), and how agricultural sector specialists have ignored and not engaged with the process. He believes that the MTEF, as a supra-ministerial cross-government policy statement of medium-term priorities and accountable actions, could play a major role in determining supra-ministerial cross-sectoral strategies.

Peter Bazeley concluded his presentation by offering a few points for discussion:

  • Is it not that what is lacking in the sector is the ability and capacity (skills and competence) to balance, sequence and reconfigure policies and resources across government organisational structures?
  • Do the sectoral institutions (in the sector) have the necessary cross-sectoral influence to achieve the kind of change needed?
  • What should be done about the sector’s suboptimal performance in engaging with contemporary policy and financing instruments (such as PRSPs, MTEF and so on),
  • How much marginal capacity do line ministries typically have to engage in or manage substantive programmes (of reform) beyond day-to-day business?
  • Is there not validity in conceding that the transaction costs of change should be covered if necessary even through ‘parallel institutions’, supra-governmental agencies, temporary units, etc. …?
  • And, finally, a plea the need for the vision and strategy for the sector to outlive relatively short political and donor cycle, and to accept that policy outcomes need to be negotiated in strongly politicised environment.
  • Steve Wiggins, opening the discussion, started by agreeing that there are few new ideas since the times of structural adjustment and liberalisation. He pointed out, however, despite what some might think there is not agreement on the policy substance and the challenge is not just about understanding the policy process. Steve stressed that agricultural technocrats are nowhere near knowing (and agreeing on) what they want to do. If this is the case, Steve argued, then trying to input ill-formed ideas on the substance into a reform processes might not be very useful it will create a very difficult policy debate.
    The following propositions were presented:

  • In a context of market liberalisation there is a widespread agreement that the role of government is to correct market failures. However, the problem seems to be the lack of agreement on the extent of the failures which would justify government intervention. Steve offered a few examples illustrating this difficulty. How prevalent, for example, is monopoly power in African supply chains? What’s the extent of market failure with regards to information and transaction costs is it not a problem of government failure by gross intervention in markets that would otherwise work?
  • The difficult issues are the institutional issues. As noted by Dani Rodrik, institutional change is the most difficult challenge of development. But in practice, institutional change is often marginalised in favour of more direct actions while the difficult issues get pushed aside.
  • Need to reduce level of uncertainly about the objectives and the means to get there. What may be needed is bold political sense of where the sector is going.
  • Much of the current research on African agricultural development might be using the wrong strategies when dealing with complex systems the best way of getting answers might be through learning from current experiences need to look at successful innovations being made rather then working from the problems.

    Several questions and comments were raised in subsequent discussion:

  • How to manage multi-sectoral planning? Why dismiss the history of experiences with planning? Wouldn’t the creation of cross-cutting sectoral units actually amplify the coordination problems in African governments?
  • The centrality of the MTEF was questioned. Focusing on MTEFs means focusing on public expenditure rather than other important issues such as the institutional issues.
  • What happens to the district level? Not enough attention has been devoted to this important level.
  • Concerns about the difficulty of engaging the private sector in reform processes were expressed. How to coordinate with the millions of private sector operators in the agriculture sector?
  • How to make the difficult link between intention and implementation? Very short term political considerations often determine implementation, how to build these in?
  • Agreement that one of the biggest problems in the sector is the absence of a unified policy message for the sector.
  • It was suggested that part of the analysis about the policy process concerns the debate about the substance (the message).
  • It was noted that the experience of Mozambique shows that the MTEF might not be the answer to cross-sectoral coordination. In Mozambique the instrument was produced mainly by foreign advisors at the Ministry of Finance level and had limited links with the provincial and district levels or indeed the State budget. Engagement of sectoral ministries was usually very poor and constrained by their limited capacity to produce consistent medium-term expenditure plans in sectors with multiple uncoordinated sources of funding.

    Although noting the potential of instruments such as the MTEF, Peter Bazeley concluded that at the moment we do not seem to have the tools (or institutions) to address the important challenge in the agriculture sector, in particular the need for more robust coordination and sequencing of policies and public investment across sectors.

    On a positive note, the chair stressed the relevance of the points raised in the presentation and discussion for the work the Future Agricultures consortium is developing on agricultural policy processes and pro-poor growth. In particular, Andrew Shepherd emphasised the need to re-think about the engagement the agricultural sector in macro policy processes such as SWAPs, PRSs, MTEF and state budgets, and analyse experiences with cross-sectoral coordination including the potential, for example, sector working groups in agriculture and rural development. It was also highlighted the need for policy making to go beyond an expenditure focus of public policies and consider other fundamental issues such as those related to creating the right institutions and an enabling environment for private sector development.