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African agri-food systems: Old wine in new bottles

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The past decade has witnessed major changes in the architecture of development partnerships in African agriculture.
These changes were sparked by an initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development— the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), established in 2003 as a framework for the restoration of agriculture growth and food security in Africa.
CAADP made a huge splash. For the first time, donor organisations, the private sector, civil society and African governments across the continent rallied behind an African-conceived and African-led agenda.
CAADP promoted a sorely needed reformist agenda as well as a process for coordinating international development partners into an integrated strategy of assistance. CAADP remains a great opportunity to drive the transformation of African agriculture.
The fundamental issue now is whether CAADP is reverting to old wine in new bottles. Most planning and policy formulation processes continue to be driven by government officials in their headquarters. Many stakeholders, especially those representing the private sector and civil society, are increasingly shut out.
Given the hierarchical nature of decision-making processes in African governments, where approvals often come from the most senior levels, a healthy public engagement of issues in which governments participate and respond publicly to concerns expressed by stakeholders rarely occurs.
Delinking national plans and policies from autocratic political influence remains one of the major hurdles obstructing necessary agricultural sector reforms in Africa. And it becomes more difficult to confront such problems when other major countries of the world are unabashedly displaying autocratic tendencies themselves.
One of the often misunderstood assumptions is that senior government bureaucrats have the expertise and incentives to make decisions that effectively promote stated policy objectives.
This is not entirely the case but is, nevertheless, very common. High-level officials, especially politicians, weigh the options by supporting interventions that will produce short-term political gains for themselves and/or their party or government in power.
For instance, in spite of solid evidence that fertiliser subsidy programmes are not very effective in promoting long-term agricultural productivity and rural living standards, African governments continue to spend roughly $1 billion on them.
Perhaps, not coincidentally, this is why some research has indicated that fertiliser subsidy programmes are highly popular with rural people and can help influence election results.
Donors working in the policy space should pay attention to increasing local capacity to generate data and evidence-based perspectives and to work better in terms of circulating these perspectives in the mainstream media to inform and guide national discussions on policy.
Producing the analysis is necessary but certainly not sufficient — we need effective ways to broadly disseminate the research findings and promote public discussion.
This is best done by local agricultural policy units and analysts, who make long-term commitments to relationship building and dialogue.
It takes time to do this, much longer than the average time an expatriate researcher spends in a country; hence, the need to support national agricultural policy analysis units that rely, where needed, on international support.
International groups willing to get behind national and regional policy units and work with them to promote their development and expertise will be appreciated and continue to be in high demand. Groups that compete directly with African-led policy institutes in the countries in which they work should carefully consider the long-term consequences of their efforts.
In generating such evidence and defining the necessary interventions, it will be crucial that African researchers explore opportunities in tapping global research and knowledge, especially in other developing regions of the world such as Southeast Asia, China and Brazil.
International development agencies, such as United States Agency for Internat ional Development, British Department for Internal Development, European Union and Agence Française de Développement, could serve as brokers that link African research institutes to similar research institutes in the South.
African governments also have a responsibility to promote home-grown agricultural policy units. It is largely the failure of African governments to adequately support their own agricultural policy research institutes and think thanks that has induced donor organisations to fund outside research groups to fill the gap.
While this might have merit in environments where accountability is lacking, the focus should be on developing programmes that put African-led national research institutes in the lead and which focus on developing their capacities.
African and global agricultural policy research institutes themselves need to reform by bringing on board other players outside their traditional research enclaves to advance policy changes at the country-level. Donors should look at new partnership models in funding research that fosters inclusivity of partners that will spur agriculture transformation in Africa.
The new, reinvigorated CAADP is creating new opportunities for inclusive engagement with all partners and stakeholders, such as through the CAADP Non-state-actors Coalition, the Biennial Review, the Technical Networks and the National Agricultural Investment Plan refresh — but it will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders to ensure that this potential is fulfilled. – The article originally appeared on Agrilinks.org
*Professor Richard Mkandawire is Director for the Africa Secretariat Alliance for African Partnership and Chairperson of the Malawi National Planning Commission

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