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The political economy of food, agriculture and irrigation development in East and Southern Africa

The chronic inability of smallholder farmers to have their economic interests articulated in the political process is cause for serious concern particularly in dual agrarian societies. The lack of political wisdom to give priority to agriculture, particularly in terms of commitment to the transformation of smallholder agriculture is the most serious post-independence error of judgement by African nations. It is in this context that we have to analyse and discuss the prospects for small-scale irrigation, and prospects for intensification and greater adoption of low-cost irrigation equipment. The 21st Century will see an increasing number of hungry and malnourished people and this has to be regarded by African nations as politically and socially unacceptable.

Issues of smallholder agricultural development in general, and food security in particular can no longer be divorced from issues of democracy, politics and governance. Food insecurity is directly related to the secondary role accorded to agriculture in general and smallholder agriculture in particular. This secondary role is mainly so in terms of public sector support and investment in rural areas. By taking a "new" political economy approach, the roles and interaction between various interest groups in society are evaluated, and the state machinery or government is considered a special interest group in its own right with no supposition that government necessarily always acts in the interest of the majority of its citizens!

The transformation of smallholder agriculture to a more science-based production system requires committed governance as well as a system of public sector organizations with the capacity to support and transform small-scale agriculture in terms of productivity and participation in the national economy.

The traditional competition between large-scale commercial agriculture on one hand, and smallholder agriculture on the other, continues to cloud food and agriculture policy and opportunities. Commercial farmers are better integrated with the national economy, with particular reference to factor and product markets. Development of institutions that serve agriculture are also historically better suited to meet the needs of large-scale agriculture. There is prima facie evidence that large-scale commercial farmers have the political and financial resources to acquire adequate support from agricultural organizations such as research, extension, credit and marketing. It is time, therefore, to ask hard questions about the public sector agricultural institutions and their ability to generate rapid technical change for smallholders in agricultural societies of East and Southern Africa. Governments and their constituent agricultural departments will therefore continue to have a limited impact on the livelihood of the rural poor, unless indigenous scientific and bureaucratic leadership becomes more demand driven, i.e., able to meet smallholders' needs.

The political economy of food insecurity

Southern African nations are facing severe problems of hunger, malnutrition, rural unemployment, land hunger, population explosion and rural migration to decaying urban centres. In spite of economic reforms, a recent World Bank study acknowledges that structural adjustment programmes in sub-Saharan Africa are not generating a sustainable supply response in agriculture, particularly from smallholders (Donovan, 1996). In some instances, the escalation of fertilizer prices, the demise of public sector credit systems for smallholders and reduction of marketing services have created new challenges for smallholders. In Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, for instance, economic reforms are benefiting commercial farmers who are largely exporters. Commercial farmers are either creating new support institutions (Zimbabwe, Malawi) or simply biasing the public sector ones in their favour (South Africa). It follows, therefore, that enhancing the capacity of public sector institutions to spearhead more rapid agricultural transformation for smallholders is a matter for urgent attention. Moreover, the majority of Africans are still rural, and it follows that the focus should be on smallholders to ensure that the benefits of development are broadly distributed.

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) have been the dominant stimulus for policy change in the agriculture and food sector over the last decade. SAPs have had limited positive impacts on input and output markets and prices, particularly in those countries with a reasonable physical infrastructure. SAPs have also had an inadvertent devastating fiscal impact on some public sector institutions such as research, extension, education, credit and fertilizer distribution systems that serve small-scale irrigation farmers. As Africa approaches the year 2000, agriculturists are taking stock of the impact of SAPs, particularly in light of growing evidence that SAPs are not generating a sustainable supply response in agriculture, particularly from smallholders.

Another troubling issue is the observed differences in results of SAP policies in different countries. De Capitani and North (1994) hypothesize that the differential performance is caused by differences in institutional development in the various countries. The implication is that many institutions supporting small-scale irrigation will have to be reformed as a prerequisite for improved performance.

In summary, African governments have paid lip service to smallholder agriculture, generally continued to tax this sector or at least treat it as a service sector. At the same time the governments have been protecting the cheap food interests of the urban minority, who by some strange twist of African politics are more politically powerful than the rural majority. It can be argued that while economic growth is the ultimate lasting solution to poverty and hunger, this growth will take time to be achieved in East and Southern Africa. It follows, therefore, that in the foreseeable future, growth policies and strategies have to be balanced by other safety net measures and deliberate policies which are pro-poor, pro-women, pro-rural children, pro-environment, as well as pro-rural employment. Such policies are difficult to come by under present political circumstances where the ruling political parties and the economically powerful private sector are urban biased. We shall also see later that small-scale irrigation is indeed pro-poor and pro-women and therefore, that African governments should invest more in this sector.

Getting agriculture moving

Since the majority of Africans are rural inhabitants and will continue to be so for some time to come, it follows that smallholder agricultural growth has to accelerate not only to address hunger, but also in part as an engine for generating the rural linkages for overall economic growth. Investing in rural areas becomes essential not only in infrastructure such as small-scale irrigation, but also in human resources, technology systems and effective public and private sector farmer support institutions. There is prima facie evidence, however, that the key agricultural organizations: research, extension, training, finance, marketing, land reforms etc. are currently not functioning in most African countries. Agricultural institutions have not forged a common vision or agenda to assist smallholders. It is vision and values that help organizations set priorities and strategies for action. Farmer support institutions generally enjoy limited patronage and partisan support of farmers and Ministries of Finance. The donor supported structural adjustment programmes have also inadvertently contributed to the weakening of these institutions through blanket policies of budgetary austerity. Part of the answer to this puzzle should be through an understanding of the agricultural policy which does not empower smallholders to have a voice in the search for opportunities and solutions to their problems.

If agricultural institutions are not guided by the needs of the rural majority, then it follows that individual agricultural institutions must have increased incentives to be creative and responsive and to interact and function as a system. Agricultural service organizations have the challenge to examine their operational inter-institutional relationships, and public servants do not appear to have incentives for collaborative action.

Farmer organizations representing smallholders as well as water users' associations are generally unable to institutionalize collective action on a special interest basis. The balkanization of smallholders, with limited capacity for collective action has created a political and institutional vacuum in rural areas of Africa.

Existing bodies of theory do not offer much in terms of a knowledge base on the development of institutions that induce development (North, 1990). Yet it is now crucial to understand why stagnation has persisted in Africa. What can be learnt from more successful political/economic systems which seem to have evolved flexible institutional structures that can survive the shocks and changes that are a necessary part of successful evolution?

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