Lessons from Malawi’s 2005/2006 Fertilizer Subsidy Programme

{jathumbnail off}Lessons_from_MalawiThis paper is based on research work carried out the under auspices of the Politics and Policy Processes theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC). It demonstrates that political context matters in agricultural development policy issues, using as illustration the case of the fertilizer subsidy programme (FSP) launched in Malawi in the 2005/2006 growing season.

This case study was chosen due to the widely orchestrated narratives of success surrounding the fertilizer subsidy story, particularly from the government and various sections of the society at large. Narratives of success are debited to the government.s determination to implement the programme despite strong resistance from certain donors, private sector captains and a wide array of technical experts which ended the country’s persistent failure to produce adequate food to feed itself for a period close to two decades. The country achieved food self sufficiency without having to take recourse to imports or donations for the first time in many years.

Previous interventions, notably, the Starter Pack (SP) and the Targeted Input Programme (TIP) failed to bring to an end the problem of endemic food insecurity in Malawi. The 2005/2006 maize harvest registered a record high of 2.72 million tones, nearly 0.25 million tones greater that the previous estimated harvest pegged at 2.5 million tones in the 1999/2000 growing season achieved with the combination of good rains and the starter pack programme (cf. Doward, et al. 2007). The success narrative has been further strengthened by the turnaround among several donors in their characterization and perception of the programme.

From totally condemning the programme as non-viable, the majority of the donors are now willing to engage with it provided the government is prepared to refine some elements of the programme.s design and procedures of implementation. The magnitude of success of the 2005/2006 subsidy programme remains, however, a subject of contentious debate. The main argument of the paper is that no matter what the technical arguments for or against (cf. John, 1998; Keeley and Scoones, 2003).

Contrary to the traditional and highly stylized perspective, policymaking does not happen in neat distinct stages except perhaps in a minimal sense that policies have to be proposed, legislated and implemented. Policy processes are instead a complex mesh of interactions and ramifications between a wide range of stakeholders who are driven and constrained by the contexts within which they operate.These developments require a radically different framework for understanding policy processes altogether.

According to the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) (2006) and Oya (2006), understanding the policy processes require:

(1) grasping the narratives that tell the policy stories;

(2) the way policy positions become embedded in networks of various actors; and

(3) the enabling or constraining power dynamics (politics and interests).

This suggests that policy processes, among other things, encapsulate power struggles, ideological contexts, patterns of social mobilization, struggle for political legitimacy, the force of external pressures and changing technical fashions. It is therefore imperative to go beyond the narrowly defined technical expertise and to recognize that policies as well as their implementation must be negotiated outcomes, requiring the involvement of multiple stakeholders with different interests (Scoones, et al., 2005).

This augurs very well with the current case study as it clearly demonstrates that agricultural policy processes are driven essentially by political forces and as such they cannot be fully understood without understanding the political economy surrounding them. Infact, in predominantly agro based economies; the political survival of governments greatly depends on perceptions of the success of agricultural policy processes judged largely on the basis of delivering on food security at whatever cost (cf. Johnston, 1996 and Oya, 2006). It is thus not surprising that the government of Malawi has been politically and not necessarily technically tactful in handling the fertilizer subsidy programme geared at revitalizing the agricultural sector with the view of achieving food security that has eluded successive governments since the turn of the 1990s.

The government implemented the fertilizer subsidy programme in the face of fierce donor resistance who argued that the programme run counter to the ongoing economic liberalization efforts but perhaps more critically the programme was criticized as placing unnecessary fiscal burden on the state to be sustainable in the long-run. The government implemented the programme to the tune of MK 7.1 against the initial budget of MK 4.7 billion without any donor support. This study drew essentially on the review of secondary sources (press reports, academic papers,government and donor documents) and on key informant interviews with officials from government, donor agencies, civil society and the private sector.

The analysis is structured along five sections. After this introduction, Section 2 explains the origins and context for the fertilizer subsidy programme. Section 3 provides details on the programme and the evolution in thinking within government. Section 4 discusses three different donor positions on the fertilizer programme: those totally opposing it, those supporting it and those reluctant but willing to engage with the government.s policy. Section 5 analyses the programme.s impact and adjustments in government and donor positions. Section 6 provides someconcluding reflections.