Aid Modalities to Agriculture: The end of the SWAp?

SWAps arose in the early to mid-1990s as a response to the perceived failure of existing aid practices and delivery mechanisms. The approach was intended to enhance aid effectiveness and recipient government’s ownership. SWAps developed mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, in aid-dependent countries with low capacity, weak management systems and a large number of donor agencies, and especially in the main social sectors, health and education.


Ten years on, SWAps are now being used in a wider range of countries, including middle income and low aid dependent, and sectors, including agriculture and rural development. The most recent estimate points to about fifteen SWAPs in agriculture at different stages of policy formulation and implementation. Agricultural SWAps have been seen not only as a way of reducing fragmentation in donor support and high transaction costs with aid management but also as an opportunity to promote the much needed inter-sectoral – or sector-wide – policy coordination, within and beyond the state. From the recipient sector’s perspective the expectation might also have been that the SWAp would help to reverse the downward trend in development assistance to agriculture since the 1980s.

So what have agricultural SWAp delivered so far? Experience to date has been mixed. Strengthened government leadership and improved dialogue and harmonisation of management procedures between government and donors and between donors themselves are frequently noted as positive achievements of the SWAp experience. Yet, this has often been at the cost of a re-centralisation of the policymaking process, particularly around central departments of the ministry of agriculture, and of an excessive focus on the SWAp process itself rather than on sector policy outcomes. There is also very limited evidence that SWAps have actually led to a reduction in transaction costs – in fact, heavy management structures have been created to support the design, implementation and monitoring of the SWAp – or indeed the improvement in agricultural performance. Also, and despite the original intent, agricultural SWAps ended up concentrating almost exclusively on the way resources are channelled to the ministry of agriculture, doing very little to stimulate linkages with other sectoral ministries and non-state agriculture stakeholders.

The difficulties with implementing the SWAp are not exclusive to the agriculture sector. SWAp experiences in the health sector, for example, have shown the danger of getting “swamped in a SWAp” – due to the obsession with the SWAp blueprint and the limited capacity of domestic governance structures to sustain it. However, the very nature of the agriculture sector makes the application of the SWAp philosophy arguably more complex than in other sectors. The challenges result from a number of structural features in the agriculture sector:

  1. the state is a minor player in the sector,
  2. the role of the state is less about spending, or delivering services, and more about the elusive task of creating an enabling environment for private sector development (sound policies and regulation), and
  3. key policies, investments and services are not under the control of a single line ministry but spread across different sectoral agencies, both at central and local government levels. The degree of contestation on stakeholder roles and policies is also high, making any attempt to coordinate government and donor policies and resource allocation a very challenging task.

So what is the future for the agricultural SWAp? Answering this question requires placing the SWAp in the context of the rapid changes underway in the architecture of development assistance.

On the one hand, the widely accepted aid effectiveness agenda – endorsed under the 2005 Paris Declaration – emphasises the need for alignment and harmonisation of aid delivery with national planning and financial management systems. This agenda has been pushing forward budgetary support as the preferred modality for aid delivery, thereby strengthening the role of ministries of finance (and emphasising the centrality of the state budget) in the mobilisation and allocation of public resources. This has important implication for the SWAp since it changes the nature of the relationship between donors, ministries of finance and agricultural ministries in the negotiation of sectoral expenditure plans.

On the other hand, the SWAp as a central planning approach – which as such has always been in tension with the decentralisation process – is being challenged by an audacious new kid on the block. Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages project (previous Future Agricultures Hot Topic) is proposing to revive the old area-based development paradigm and shift the locus of decision making and resource allocation to rural areas. The foreseen scaling up of this village-based project could potentially have significant implications on both donor and government spending decisions and on the wider policy making process.

So do agriculture SWAps still have a space in the emerging context? Maybe – but they will necessary require some careful forward-looking rethinking. There is widespread agreement that coordination of public and private sector investments is critical for the development of the agriculture sector. In this sense, the idea of having a common forum for dialogue and coordination of policy interventions is compelling. Yet, is the ministry of agriculture the most adequate host for this forum? Does it have the clout, capacity, resources and incentives to deliver the much needed policy framework for sustainable and pro-poor agricultural growth? These are some of the questions the Future Agricultures Consortium is concentrating on. In particular, the work on agricultural policy processes is questioning what is the contemporary role of the ministry of agriculture in a volatile and increasingly demanding political and economic environment?

By Lidia Cabral


Global Donor Platform for Rural Development

Aid to agriculture

DFID work on aid effectiveness – SWAps

Agricultural SWAps

Paris Declaration