Agricultural Policy in Africa

Understanding Decision-Making and Implementation

Danielle Resnick and Regina Birner

In recent years, there has been renewed emphasis on promoting agricultural production and food security in sub-Saharan Africa through efforts such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).  The food crises of 2008 and 2009, and their impact on political stability and agricultural trade policies across the developing world, have further heightened the importance of a productive agricultural sector in Africa that both creates sustainable livelihoods for farmers and affordably caters to the needs of urban consumers.  Given that the demand for and supply of food will continue to be affected by population growth, rapid urbanization, shifts in dietary patterns, and climate change, improving agricultural production is likely to remain high on the policy agenda of both donors and African governments for the foreseeable future.

Yet, despite this renewed attention, there remains very little understanding of contemporary agricultural policy-making processes in the region and of the political economy motivations that underlie them.[1] One reason for this lack of understanding is that a plethora of new actors now operate within the policy arena. For instance, since the 1990s, multi-party democracy is becoming the norm within the region and opposition parties are increasingly critical of incumbent parties’ policy orientations, especially in countries where they obtain an adequate level of representation in national parliaments.

Manoocher Deghati / IRIN Photo
Manoocher Deghati / IRIN Photo

Likewise, continuing efforts towards decentralization augment the number of sub-national officials who are involved in policy-making, just as Africa’s multiple regional economic organizations increase the number of supra-national influences. Moreover, in contrast to previous perceptions of smallholder farmers being voiceless and uninformed, a growing number of active farmers’ organizations now exist, such as the Réseau des organisations paysannes et de producteurs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA) in West Africa. Private sector actors, such as supermarket chains involved in outgrower schemes and multinationals exploring biotechnology options, also play a role.

This piece is based on Birner and Resnick (2010) (see further reading), who begin to address the dearth of research on agricultural policy-making processes in today’s complex environment.  In addition to reviewing previous periods of policy-making, they identify various political economy factors that collectively need to be considered to understand why and when certain policies are adopted and whether they succeed. These factors can be divided into two categories: policy decision-making and policy implementation.

Policy decision-making

With respect to policy decision-making, interest group frameworks have been at the cornerstone of most political economy approaches. However, in light of the complexity noted above, they are insufficient on their own. Such frameworks posit that individuals are self-interested and utility-maximizing and that their policy preferences are determined by their position within politics and the economy. For instance, the seminal works of Bates (1981) and Lipton (1977) illustrated that marketing boards, subsidized inputs, and overvalued exchange rates, often disadvantaged smallholder producers and proved negative for macroeconomic stability. However, politicians were conscious of keeping food prices low for restive, urban consumers who were believed to have greater capacity for collective action than their rural counterparts.

Yet, interest group approaches ignore that individuals often possess multiple preferences simultaneously and without perfect information, individuals may not know ex ante which policies best conform to their interests. Moreover, which interest groups’ voices are heard and whether they have an impact is often structured by the political regime in which actors operate. More democratic regimes should result in policies favourable to the interests of the majority while authoritarian regimes need only to respond to the most powerful groups. Some scholars have found that higher agricultural protection levels are found in more politically liberal countries, which may partially explain the recent re-emergence of input subsidy programmes in African countries with large numbers of rural voters. Within democracies, features such as the degree of party fragmentation, the presence of majoritarian or proportional voting, and the nature of electoral cycles also matter for agricultural policy choices. Indeed, the timing of electoral cycles can influence when an issue gains salience and how it is framed to constituents. For instance, in the wake of the 2008 food price riots in Senegal, which occurred during the preparation for important municipal elections, President Abdoulaye Wade announced the launch of the Grand Offensive for Food and Abundance (GOANA), which ambitiously plans for Senegal to achieve total self-sufficiency in rice by 2015.

Policy beliefs constitute less concrete but equally important factors in shaping agricultural policy decisions. For instance, policies in the pre-structural adjustment period that taxed agriculture in order to finance rapid industrialization were influenced by the notion of ‘African socialism’ and dependency theory. The era of structural adjustment likewise reflected a shift in policy paradigm within the international donor community. More recently, a number of developing country governments have become focused on the idea of food self-sufficiency rather than just food security. The existing ideological orientation of the ruling government, along with memories of past policy experiments, the influence of the media, interventions by donors and international agricultural experts, and demonstration effects from neighbouring countries can all collectively interact to shape policy beliefs.

Policy implementation

Other sets of factors weigh more heavily in determining why, when, and how policies are implemented. For example, Resnick and Birner (2010) focus on the cases of Burkina Faso and Senegal to illustrate that even after well-conceived agricultural policies are adopted on paper, they may nonetheless stall at the implementation stage due to both political manoeuvring and a lack of financial resources. Whether legislative approval is required and how quickly it can be obtained is also important for understanding implementation processes. In particular, a ruling party may encounter greater difficulty in securing support for its policies in a minority or coalition government than in a presidential system where both the executive and legislature belong to the same.

Likewise, the degree of ministerial capacity and inter-ministerial co-operation influences implementation. Often, ministries of agriculture in Africa are hindered by, among other things, poor access to data and statistics, low levels of funding, and inadequate management practices. Furthermore, agriculture ministries frequently require close interaction with finance ministries in order to ensure adequate resources for implementation. Some policies also involve the co-operation of large numbers of ministries beyond agriculture—such as ministries of livestock, fisheries, forestry, and the environment—and low levels of communication and co-operation among ministries can delay implementation. At the micro level, the resources and expertise of the personnel responsible for carrying out and monitoring implementation can make a huge difference regarding whether a policy succeeds or not in its original objectives. Similarly, the existence of rigorous evaluation mechanisms at the point of implementation can ensure that refinements are made to improve the policy.

There are a number of reasons why understanding the agricultural policy-making process within countries is so important. First, it can inform external donors ex ante about which policies are more politically and administratively feasible than others. Second, it may help elucidate why governments do not always pursue those policies that agricultural economists and development practitioners advocate for maximizing growth and/or reducing poverty. For instance, fertilizer input subsidy schemes in both Malawi and Zambia comprise a disproportionate share of each government’s agricultural budget, displacing a more balanced investment strategy in research and development, transport and irrigation infrastructure, and research and extension that are commonly promoted by the agricultural development community. One notable reason is that fertilizer distribution is visible, short-term, and targeted, allowing politicians to take credit at election time much more readily than more long-term investments in training extension officers or exploring new plant varieties. Lastly, by pinpointing the difficulties of implementation and cases of non-implementation, knowledge of the policy process can identify why well-intentioned and conceptualized policies ultimately exhibit minimal or negative impacts.

The various factors elaborated above are integrated into a conceptual framework in Birner and Resnick (2010), and they can be useful for analyzing a wide array of policy interventions. For example, there are research gaps regarding why certain African countries, but not others, have adopted input subsidy programmes, allow the production of transgenic crops, or engaged in protectionist measures in the wake of the food price crisis of 2008 and 2009. Often, addressing these and other knowledge gaps actually involves looking beyond the agricultural sector in order to understand the broader political and economic context in which national development policies are conceived.

Further reading

Bates, Robert (1981). Markets and States in Tropical Africa:  The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Birner, Regina, and Danielle Resnick (2010). ‘The Political Economy of Policies for Smallholder Agriculture’, World Development, 38(10): 1442-52. 

Lipton, Michael (1977). Why Poor People Stay Poor:  Urban Bias and World Development. London: Temple Smith.

Resnick, Danielle, and Regina Birner (2010). ‘Agricultural Strategy Development in West Africa: The False Promise of Participation?’,  Development Policy Review, 28(1): 97-115.

About the authors

Danielle Resnick is a Research Associate at UNU-WIDER. Danielle previously worked at the International Food Policy Research Institute and in the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group. She holds a PhD in political science from Cornell University.

Regina Birner is Chair of Social and Institutional Change in Agricultural Development at the University of Hohenheim, Germany.

[1] A notable exception is the important work on policy processes by the Future Agricultures consortium (see 

WIDER Angle newsletter
January 2011
ISSN 1238-9544