In this article I will be having a look at Africa’s attempt to tackle the question of persistent and chronic food insecurity with particular focus on Malawi’s implementation of the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). The implementation of the program since 2005 has transformed Malawi from being heavily dependent on either food aid or commercial food imports to national self-food sufficiency.
Malawi’s case is quite important in international development circles in terms of two factors: 1) the prominence of agriculture on the international development agenda; and 2) the place of national democratic aspirations in the field.
First, agriculture is back on the international development agenda as a key strategy for achieving sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction and food security. Second, the Malawi case raises a fundamental dilemma in relation to what should happen when national democratic development clashes with development partner’s policy prescriptions.
In sharing the Malawi’s experience about moving from famine to self-sufficiency, the article will therefore firstly discuss the nature and the key elements of the FISP’s success story in guaranteeing food security, the factors behind its success, the potential threats to long-term sustainability of this success and concluding reflections.
During the 2004 election campaign, the enduring chronic food security situation in the country generated a national consensus on introducing a subsidy scheme aimed at assisting farmers to enhance their productivity through access to improved seed and fertilizers. The nature of the program entailed targeting almost half of farming families in rural Malawi. The smallholder farmers receive a certain amount of fertilizer and improved seed. The inputs are delivered to farmers through vouchers which they have to redeem at specific outlets. The use of voucher was an attempt to make FISP smart in order to overcome the challenges (such as corruption and leakage) associated with implementation of conventional subsidies. Subsidies are smart if they are part of broader productivity enhancement program, if they have a clear strategy and if they are carefully targeted at helping agents overcome market failure.
The success indicators for FISP are based on systematic and rigorous yearly evaluations as well as a wide-range of studies that have been undertaken by scholars. Its measures of success has been distinguished into two broad categories: direct benefits and economy-wide benefits.
The direct benefits are mainly attributed to the dramatic rise in food production at the national level. This positive effects have manifested themselves at the household level. Several studies have consistently shown that receipt of subsidized inputs increases the probability of households being net sellers rather than net buyers of maize. According to a study by Chirwa and colleagues in 2011, pre and post FISP-implementation study, the program has a positive impact on schooling and school attendance. The result further showed that households that has access to FISP for five or six years had healthier children than the rest.
The implementation of FISP has also had several economy-wide benefits. Firstly, the agricultural sector has grown consistently since the implementation of the FISP. This has helped overall economic growth in Malawi, although such a result should not be surprising since Malawi is a predominantly agrarian economy. The programme also had a positive impact on rural wages and working conditions for the rural poor. In addition, Malawi has since not resorted to heavy maize imports to deal with threats of food insecurity. In fact, during this period Malawi has exported maize to Kenya and Zimbabwe and even donated maize to Lesotho and Swaziland. More importantly, FISP has enabled Malawi to achieve some semblance of food security even in the wake of rapid population increase, which is an achievement that deserves our attention.
The key question is: what factors led to the success of FISP? This question is very important because previously similar initiatives such as the Starter Pack (SP) and Targeted Input Programme (TIP) failed to break down the vicious cycle of food insecurity in Malawi. The success of FISP can be attributed to two main factors: 1) strong political commitment and 2) a willingness to learn from past implementation experiences.
First, there was firm political leadership to ensure the implementation of FISP against the resistance coming from the influential donor community. Moreover, the leadership was determined to succeed given the centrality of food security in the country’s electoral politics, underlined by the national consensus, which was reflected in the campaign platforms throughout the 2004 election. The 2004/05 food crisis further played a positive role in bringing together coalitions and networks in Malawi to debate about feasible strategies for dealing with the problem of food insecurity.
Second, the success of FISP was further strengthened by a learning culture that has characterized the implementation of FISP. For instance, FISP has experimented with the involvement of the private sector in the distribution of both seed and fertilizer which was intended to find the most efficient means of delivering the inputs to farmers.
There have nonetheless been some challenges that have threatened to undermine the success story of FISP. It is estimated that FISP takes up as much as 85% of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget in procurement of fertilizer and seed. This leaves almost nothing for complementary investments (such as research, extension and rural infrastructural development) that could have made the productivity of FISP even greater.
Nevertheless the FISP is very much seen as a lasting solution to Malawi’s problem of food insecurity. Discussions about the possibility of scaling back the programme are fiercely resisted especially by politicians because they fear doing so would create a serious backlash among voters. It is even difficult to talk about redesigning the programme so that beneficiaries should graduate from depending on it after several years to ensure its sustainability. This is an issue of great importance since the concerns about the long-term fiscal sustainability of FISP are genuine.
It is, however, important to note that most donors are fairly sympathetic to FISP now than when it was introduced in 2005 but would nonetheless like the government to consider all options that would enhance its overall efficiency and effectiveness including a clear exit strategy in the medium term.
The Malawi FISP experiences raise several pertinent issues in international development. While international development prescriptions are useful, the Malawi experience shows that context matters. Without understanding the context, international norms, standards and practices cannot be effectively customized to bring about the desired changes. The domestication of international development norms, practice and standards can be further bolstered by strategic and dynamic leadership in the context of a learning culture.
By: Kristina Petrova