How policies end: not with a bang, but a whimper

Masimba Tafirenyika describes how dire the food security situation in Malawi has become:

Once again Malawi finds itself in a tight spot. A food crisis set off by erratic rains, rising food prices and economic hardships is slowly unfolding. For the first time in several years, the country’s ability to feed its citizens is at risk. Sadly and unexpectedly, Malawi has lost its hard-earned status as an agricultural success story — it used to produce enough maize for its people to eat and still provide a surplus to neighbours. Many are now wondering what went wrong and whether there could be lessons for other African countries.

More than 1.63 million people, or 11 per cent of the population, are facing severe food shortages, according to the World Food Programme, a UN relief agency. Malawi needed $30 million to the end of 2012 to cover the shortfall.

As Tafirenyika hints, this stands in stark contrast to reporting on Malawi over the past few years, where it was heralded as a shining example of how to tackle food security. Five years, ago Celia Dugger wrote in the NYT how the country’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, despite the protests of many, “ignored the experts” and subsequently dealt with the country’s hunger problems by drastically scaling up its fertiliser subsidy programme. Malawi subsequently enjoyed a spate of bumper harvests and many were quick to tout the large-scale subsidisation as being both a success and worth of replication in other countries. Most notable was the support of Jeffrey Sachs, who’s incessant belief that the fertiliser subsidisation was a policy holy grail led him to write an oddly-appreciative obituary for Mutharika, who died at the end of a thuggish, repressive and disastrous second term in office.

Meanwhile, hunger returns to Malawi, but we have not yet established a convincing narrative. Many economists (including a few on this blog) have pointed out, time and time again, that the fertiliser subsidy programme was fraught with pitfalls, both political and practical. While the recent crisis is probably too complex to fully substantiate these concerns, now would be an appropriate time for the fertiliser advocates to turn their attention to the food situation in Malawi, and begin to ask why. Otherwise, we risk touting a policy that might actually have been a complete failure, or at the very least lacked the sort of robustness that anti-hunger policies desperately need.

Political security, for the price of a bag of fertiliser

Quid pro quo

The other day Ranil wrote an excellent analysis of the creeping recrudescence of authoritarianism in Malawi, following Bingu wa Mutharika’s re-election victory, which basically eliminated the fragility of his position.

What is worth discussing a little further is the means through which Mutharika secured that victory. While ethnicity has never been as salient an issue in Malawi as many other SSA countries, its politics have long been dominated by regional `super-ethnic’ voting. It used to be the case that one of the easiest ways to know how someone was going to vote was to know whether they were from the Northern, Central, or Southern regions of the country

When I lived in Malawi, one of my night watchmen (who was from the Central region) expressed a deep affinity for John Tembo, the current political leader of the Malawi Congress Party, former right-hand man of the deceased dictator Hastings Banda. Tembo was a wicked thug during Banda’s time, yet my night watchman’s support was unwavering: “He is my uncle”, he affectionately put it, expressing regional solidarity.

Shortly after winning his first election on a United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket, Bingu wa Mutharika created the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This was in early 2005, a time when politics was still marked by regionalism. Shortly after, an Afrobarometer survey was conducted in the country (see below), confirming the regional bias: voters preferred the DPP in the north, the MCP in the Center, and the UDF in the south.

But between the 2005 Afrobarometer survey and the 2009 elections, something shifted in the way the population expressed political support: the DPP and Mutharika managed incredible gains across all regions (see this Afrobarometer paper for more info about the shift in voting habits). This table from the report sums up this shift in support:

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Fertiliser and the economists’ only joke

Justin Sandefur, a former Oxford colleague, is now blogging over at the Centre for Global Development blog. His first post tackles the fertiliser subsidy debate:

The best rationale for Malawi-style input subsidies is that small-scale farmers have profitable investment opportunities that they fail to exploit.  This logic is hard for economists to swallow.   Economists really only ever tell one joke, but it fits here:

An economist and his friend are walking down the street when the friend sees a ten dollar bill on the sidewalk.

“Look,” he says, “it’s a ten dollar bill”.

“Nonsense,” says the economist. “If that was a ten dollar bill, someone would have picked it up by now.”

By this logic, if fertilizer were profitable, farmers would be using it already.  Unless you can point to a clear market failure or some widespread failure of economic rationality, subsidies are just money down the drain.

Justin goes on to discuss a few empirical studies which come down both for and against subsidising agricultural inputs, noting that we need more robust evaluations before we can be confident one way or the other.