Friday, 6 September 2013

Increasing calls for a refocus on the use and implementation of agricultural input subsidy programmes

Back from fieldwork now and it seems that the debate over agricultural input subsidies is hotting up. With some countries like Malawi and Zambia now several years into their latest input subsidy programmes and progress on tackling hunger and poverty slow, people are getting frustrated.

Whilst I was in Malawi, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food - Olivier de Schutter - warned about the many problems facing the Farm Input Subsidy Programme: the need for complementary policies, crowding out other investments due to high costs, poor targeting, poor timing. He has even questioned the wisdom of focusing so much on inorganic fertiliser for the purpose of replenishing soil fertility.

Just today two researchers have also written for the Guardian Development Blog highlighting the need for change in Zambia's programme, with similar problems being highlighted.

These calls are a wake up call to governments implementing input subsidy programmes. While they are obviously politically appealing, they could be much more efficient and effective. Especially for those countries that are donor-dependent, these calls are likely to put increasing pressure on governments to take measures to improve the cost-effectiveness and look more carefully at other complementary policies that are needed if input subsidies are to bring about the impacts theory suggests they could.

Photo: twin and twin trading

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Malawi economy on the up: what does it mean?

It's heartening to see that this time round during my trip to Malawi there is something of a different feel to the place (at least in the capital and from a distance). A few weeks back the World Bank approved a $50m grant in budget support. It has now claiming that official figures show Malawi's economy is recovering. Expected growth is 5.7 percent in agriculture and more than 6 percent in manufacturing.

However, I anticipate that I will find things are very different for the majority of the population; those in the rural areas. After last seasons poor rains, in many parts of the country farmers have found that, even if they could access fertiliser through the subsidy programme (it's hard to get it without given that it costs around 15,000 Kwacha per 50kg bag - around £30 and well out of reach of most smallholder farmers) they were able to grow little if anything. I was speaking to someone from Dedza yesterday who said that during last season they had not had rains since February which meant that in some parts people were simply left with nothing. Nothing to eat, nothing to sell. "The people there are suffering" I was told. It makes me wonder how much of the growth in agriculture will be due to tobacco production, which I understand was better this year (tobacco crops can more often benefit from irrigation and more intensively applied inputs). This leaves an untold story of the ordinary Malawian smallholder who tries to grow enough maize to feed himself/herself and the family and make it through the year without going hungry.

It is important to note that this is not an argument against the Farm Input Subsidy Programme. Indeed, without fertiliser and without improved maize seed and legume seed most farmers really would be suffering. The point is that inputs such as these cannot be seen as a silver bullet in and of themselves. Lessons must be learnt from the earlier Green Revolution that occurred across Asia where fertiliser and seeds were but one part of a much wider package of government support which included access to subsidised credit, irrigation and investments in roads and research and development. Without these complementary policies it is difficult to imagine people escaping the low productivity trap they find themselves in.

All this serves as a reminder that while the health of the macroeconomy is obviously crucial and intimately linked with the fortunes of those in rural areas (e.g. fertiliser must be imported which requires foreign exchange) what really matters for much of the population is having the means to grow food for themselves.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Fieldwork blog

I will be keeping a blog of my time in Malawi while I am on fieldwork there from 17th June to 4th August 2013. You can link to it here -

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Discussion on Input Subsidies

This afternoon I will be watching a discussion facilitated at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on input subsidy programmes in low-income countries. Chair and discussants are as follows:

Chair: Shenggen Fan, IFPRI. Speakers: Thomas Jayne, Michigan State University; Shahidur Rashid, IFPRI; Derek Byerlee, World Bank (Ret.); Simeon Ehui, The World Bank.

Hopefully it can be downloaded at a later date from the following link: Will seek to update with some key points of summary.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Randomise this...

On a number of occasions in the last year or so I've had people ask if I'd read Poor Economics - a seminal book that brings together the work and ideas of two prominent economists from MIT - Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banarjee. Usually, the conversation has involved some sort of a statement about how refreshing the book was - a nice move towards looking at "what works" in the world of international development and a move towards a more practical evidence-based approach in economics.
At this point, I have to admit that Esther Duflo was certainly one of the key inspirations for me in choosing to study and carry on with Development Economics. I found the approach she used to cut through much of the often highly ideological arguments that you find out there in many economics papers. I also found Poor Economics to be a nice refreshing read.

So, when I came across this critique of Poor Economics by Sanjay Reddy from the New School (New York), I noticed I was coming at it from a fairly sceptical position, aware of many of the critiques that were out there about Randomised Controlled Trials. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this one goes further and deeper, highlighting a number of limitations of the broad approach taken in Poor Economics, reaching right back to its underlying epistemological basis. 

Needless to say, this one is well worth a read. Beyond simply being a very good critique of Poor Economics, it also makes important reflections about the nature of Development Economics in general and whether the use of RCTs does actually cut through the complexity or simply side-step many important questions that we still need to ask.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Beyond Randomised Controlled Trials

Found a nice blog here by Tiina Pasanen of ODI about the need to think beyond simply the methods that we are using and evaluating rigour on that basis, towards reflection on all stages of the process of evaluation.

The blog makes some nice references to the RCT debate and covers new reports that have come out which seek to extend the discussion on programme evaluation.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Reflections on agricultural production estimates

In the world of research and academia it may often be taken for granted that agricultural production estimates are accurate. The same problem occurs when we rely uncritically on poverty estimates provided by national statistics offices.

This Guardian article on System of Rice Intensification raises the question of whether production estimates should always be taken at face value. While I'm in no position to comment on the particular case that is raised, it is crucial for researchers working on projects that depend on agricultural output estimates to make themselves fully aware of the methods used to estimate production volumes and, in turn, the potential issues of reliability and bias. Beyond this, it seems only sensible to seek additional information that might help to corroborate findings.