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Reclaiming Policy Space: Lessons from Malawi’s Fertilizer Subsidy Programme

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This paper is based on research work carried out the under auspices of the Politics and Policy Processes theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC). It demonstrates that political context matters in agricultural development policy issues, using as illustration the case of the fertilizer subsidy programme launched in Malawi in the 2005/2006 growing season. The main argument of the paper is that no matter what the technical arguments for or against particular policy positions are, it is ultimately the configuration of political interests that determine policy outcomes on the ground. This resonates very well with recent thinking of the politics of policy which emphasizes the complex and messy processes by which polices are understood, formulated and implemented, and the range of competing actors’ interests involved. This study drew essentially on the review of secondary sources (press reports, academic papers, government and donor documents) and on key informant interviews with officials from government, donor agencies, civil society and the private sector. The paper mainly:

explains the origins and context for the fertilizer subsidy programme
provides details on the programme and the evolution in thinking within government
discusses three different donor positions on the fertilizer programme: those totally opposing it; those supporting it; those reluctant but willing to engage with the government’s policy
analyses the programme’s impact and adjustments in government and donor positions.

Finally the author provides the following reflections:

The domestic political economy context matters in any agricultural policy process.
Policy designers, and donors in particular, need a deeper awareness of the political and economic history of agriculture, as well as the nature of the implicit ‘social contract’ between smallholders and the state, and the importance of state organisations in providing in times of need.
There is need to fully grasp the array of stakeholders and their interests, competing views, and demands in policy issues. Understanding how various interests play out is critical for analysing potential trade-offs in the policy process.
Government leadership and determination backed up by a democratic mandate means that there must be a culture of pragmatism, negotiation and compromise among donors, who often are used to getting their own way.
Donors should not only understand the political context of the countries where they operate but should also be more reflexive in their reading of that reality and the role they play in it.