id21 viewpoints

Food Security: Africa Urgently Needs new solutions.

In response to the latest issue of id21 insights outlining NEPAD's framework for achieving food security in sub-Saharan Africa, Ian Scoones, from the UK Institute of Development Studies, argues that Africa urgently needs new solutions.

Food, agriculture and the challenge of beating hunger in Africa lead the international development agenda today. But these are not new issues. Africa has been falling behind on all key development indicators for decades. It is clear that Africa urgently requires new solutions.

id21 insights #61 laid out the challenges for the ambitious Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Familiar problems were eloquently outlined – a lack of fertiliser, a lack of irrigation, poor infrastructure and inadequate research. But the solutions offered were also very familiar – more seeds and fertiliser, more infrastructure, more and better research. Have we not been hearing this for decades, with little impact?

There are of course qualifications today. Our language is now full of mentions of stakeholders, partnerships, participation, integration, coordination and so on. But it is often not clear what all this actually means. The ambitions of a market-driven, technology-led Green Revolution in Africa are apparent, and few would deny the need to boost agricultural productivity growth, and see the depressing statistics over-turned. But how to do it?

There were some ideas floated in this issue of id21 insights. For example, Monty Jones and Frances Kimmins argued for new forms of innovation systems to facilitate ‘rainbow evolutions’, rather than ‘big-bang’ Green Revolutions, while Malcolm Blackie argued for an integrated ‘starter pack’ approach to get agriculture moving. But by only focusing on technical and institutional issues, these commentaries, like so many others, skirted the more complex intersections of policy and politics in Africa.

Except for a few general references to the need for ‘good governance’, the contributors shied away from the practical and political difficulties of implementing effective agricultural policy in Africa. This issue should have asked:

Contributors to the recent Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Bulletin ‘New Directions for African Agriculture’ (Volume 36: 2) argued that politics and policy processes need a far greater focus in our deliberations on future directions for agriculture in Africa. Hiding behind technical, market or institutional fixes is insufficient for making progress towards achieving food security across the continent.

An example is fertiliser policy, highlighted by two articles in id21 insights #61. There has been much discussion recently of the need to boost soil fertility. Jeffrey Sachs and Pedro Sanchez of the Millennium Project talk of the need for massive increases in fertiliser use to replenish degraded soils. No one denies that nutrients are scarce and often limiting in small-scale farming systems in Africa, but blanket solutions to this problem have failed in the past. Endless fertiliser projects, allied to a strong tradition of ‘fertiliser aid’, have foundered on policy and implementation issues. Are the same mistakes going to be made again?

Numerous studies (for example by IDS and partners) show that farmers manage soils and fertility inputs in complex ways. For example, where water control is not feasible or economic, farmers want to avoid wasting precious inputs and may leave the area to the vagaries of nature. Target-driven, package-defined technical solutions eradicate such specificity in favour of generalised solutions. This often undermines incentives to use inputs more efficiently through new application approaches and fertility input combinations.

Why are these blanket solutions continually promoted in the face of accumulated evidence that they almost always fail? This question requires a closer examination of how and why policy processes work. Studies of policy processes in Africa show that simple narratives – storylines of how the world is and should be – often drive major development initiatives. Organisations support these ‘blueprint’ visions with money, action plans, programmes and targets. These visions then develop a momentum of their own, often immune to criticism or reflection.

They need forceful and well-connected backers to keep going, of course. The largely forgotten Soil Fertility Initiative was launched a decade ago with great fanfare by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and many other major global organisations. It was also backed by the fertiliser industry, keen to see development support for their businesses under the veil of public-private partnerships. Yet the initiative faltered when it encountered realities on the ground. A decade on, the same people and organisations are promoting ‘new’ initiatives such as the Millennium Villages Project. This year also see the African Fertiliser Summit in Abuja, which aims to restart the whole process once again.

This sceptical appraisal does not suggest that we should abandon all efforts to address the challenges of soil fertility in Africa: far from it. It is simply a plea to think more carefully about how to develop solutions from the ground up: to understand how farmers see soil fertility challenges; to explore the incentives to invest more at greatest efficiency (chemical fertilisers are often expensive and, given the reliance on fossil fuels, unlikely to get cheaper); to develop the institutions – public and private – that can deliver the best results.

Such solutions must be context specific, based upon the particular agro-ecological, social and political circumstances of different places. A key challenge is to increase the capacity for locally-attuned dialogue and deliberation around policy solutions, and avoid the temptations of allowing commissions and committees to make all the decisions.

The Future Agricultures Consortium is beginning to address some of these challenges. This project convenes processes of research, reflection and dialogue on key agricultural policy issues in Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi. The aim is to examine (and challenge where necessary) conventional policy thinking and explore new options through dialogue and debate that is rooted in local contexts. For example, consortium partners are asking:

Answers to any such questions require a long, searching look at the politics of policy processes in different settings. In addressing the challenges of African agriculture, this should be both the starting and ending point. Without this, the grand ambitions of NEPAD and others will, like earlier attempts, come to little. Mirroring much current development thinking, this issue of id21 insights provided little insight into such issues, keeping to the safer, more sanitised ground of the technical domain. This was a missed opportunity.

Contributor: Ian Scoones

‘New Directions for African Agriculture’, IDS Bulletin 36.2, edited by Ian Scoones, Aaron deGrassi, Stephen Devereux and Lawrence Haddad, 2005 More information.
‘Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa’, Earthscan: London, by James Keeley and Ian Scoones, 2003 More information.
‘Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa’, Earthscan: London, edited by Ian Scoones, 2001 More information.

Further Information
Ian Scoones
Institute of Development Studies
University of Sussex
Brighton, BN1 9RE

Tel: +44 (0)1273 606261
Fax: +44 (0)1273 621202
Email: i.scoones@ids.ac.uk

Institute of Development Studies, UK

Other related links:
Future Agricultures

IDS work on agriculture

IDS work on soil fertility management in Africa

Policies for Soil Fertility Management in Africa. A Report Prepared for the Department for International Development

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