Updated: Jan 21
There are times when development interventions counter their very intention to get the poor out of poverty. In the name of fair play and inclusivity, the one-size-fits-all approach to development projects is causing more harm for the poor, and will likely keep them locked up in the vice’s cycle forever. Almost every development project and policy is guilty of this gross miscalculation, and targeting techniques in the conduct of pre-assessments for projects needs a radical overhaul.
Not every individual working the land for agricultural activities necessarily becomes a farmer. Nor is every woman that Malawi’s mandazi lady, a.k.a. Joyce Banda, targeted happens to be a cut-out entrepreneur. Many a time, even the University of Malawi has also been guilty of undemocratically allocating student applicants to courses they have not applied, usually in the interest of producing higher numbers of educationists, and to ensure less popular disciplines receive the numbers that will justify paying the lecturers hired to teach them. Yet, this ideology that is driven by the appeal of “inclusiveness” continues being tethered to novel 21st century ideas for interventions in Malawi and its developing neighbours over and over again. Along the way, donor resources continue to be invested in bottomless pits whose only appreciation reeks of appetite for more.
There are several reasons that should shape a rethink of development delivery. To use an often-abused sector example in agriculture, a government-led subsidy programme that aims at improving a ‘farmer’s’ productivity to grow maize and legumes through the provision of seed and fertilizer itself assumes that the only insufficiency the individual on the receiving end suffers is the lack of inputs. Likewise, Mrs. Banda thought the only missing link in the mandazi woman’s journey to prosperity was start-up capital of less than US$20. This website agrees that inputs may be an important explanatory factor to the hunger situation in the country, but nonetheless bemoans the callousness of input provision if it lacks an assessment of endemic factors that drive farming or business at the individual or household levels.
The most important factor for us at this website is that of the heterogeneity of the people we call farmers. This group of people is endowed with several different skills that are not limited to crop or animal husbandry. And so defining food security, especially in rural areas, within the scope of household food production and not a combination of other market-driven processes for food access, relegates all active skills to a mishmash of food production outcomes that are below par.
Another explanation is embedded in the level of household and individual poverty. Typically, per capita expenditures on the targeted poor are too small to transform them, either because the return period of the investment is relatively long or because the return itself is insufficient to be worth the adoption of the investment in the first place. In agriculture, a duality problem arises in that the meagre farm subsidies are inappropriate for even the small landholdings that people use for agriculture. The faster land fragments in the country, due to the fascinating rare ability of citizens to multiply themselves, the smaller the garden size becomes for farming to suffice for large families. But neither does the 5kg bag of maize seed subsidy mean this family will be fed for twelve months. To be fair to government subsidy programs, donor subsidies provided through development projects also do not do much to make agriculture a sustainable means for livelihoods, although the rhetoric is very much invested in such sophisticated terminology.
Speaking of landholding, the household level politics of landholding in Malawi supersedes the idea of productive use, especially as the structural changes in the land sector continue to influence the value of land. Although this will be a discussion for another day, land use in Malawi is very inelastic, making it hard for ‘farming’ populations to seek alternative uses and/or employ productive techniques that will increase output. In part, this outcome reveals the intersection between land use and endowments of land holders as farmers, the point we make two paragraphs above.
A critical danger in the conceptualization of input subsidies that are targeted at social agents as individuals and households has also been the pro-poor belief that targeting the most vulnerable or ultra-poor is the best form of social protection that also doubles as capacity building. The oversight in this approach has comprised reliance on the vulnerable as the sole beneficiary in a larger agricultural system that has failed to self-sustain and feed the nation for decades on end. In many notable circumstances, inputs have not reached the targets due to pilferage in the distribution system. However, in large part, political elites and the rich have taken advantage of the targeted vulnerable and have offered temporary remediation of their economic situation by buying off subsidized inputs at negligible values and aggregating the loot for farming in large scale farms.
For the vulnerable that have taken on farming with subsidized inputs, lack of productive labour either within the family or that which is inaccessible through rural labour markets has meant that the elderly, those living with disability or female- and child-headed households have not been able to dedicate to the minimum farming practices that are important for sufficient yield. In terms of promoting business, on the other hand, low per capita investments have only led to the tendency to squander start-up capital, a normally appropriate action than to put effort into low-return ventures.
Of course, implementation of agricultural subsidy programs like the corruption-infested Targeted Inputs Program or the Farm Input Subsidy Program and in Mrs. Banda’s One Family One Cow Program and Peter Mutharika’s Malata and Cement Subsidy Program, cannot be divorced from the political tectonics that underlie national elections every five years. In short, it has been very hard for any sitting government to divorce itself from provisioning agricultural inputs and other kinds of subsidies to the vulnerable since the political costs of promoting alternative approaches are too high to risk.
Subsidy-driven programs are not working in Malawi. The first thing they ought to stop is perpetuating pity for the poor and vulnerable. Development needs to intensify its already inclusive focus on developing social sectors so every man, woman, boy and girl can access high quality health services and education, and to look into the type of social infrastructure that will be important to deal with women’s traditional burdens so they can be active agents of development just like men. Social support should soothe the plight of the vulnerable, but building their capacities should be a much larger endeavor that national development should take on.
The future of development in Malawi, however, is to conceive an appropriate notion of where investments have the largest impacts on the poor. It will be easy to identify individuals, households and groups with the potential to grow a return on investments that will have positive externalities on the poor, a missing result of directly investing in the vulnerable. Government should enable its ability to regulate their actions. If there is adamancy to continue such development, then petty and stupefying portions of the pie must be discouraged if transformation of lives is to take place.
The report on the national consultations on the post-2015 development agenda in Malawi clearly signals that the poor have grown weary of development initiatives that seem incapable of getting them out of poverty. They are requesting for a desperate overhaul in approaches. Those in charge of development need to listen.