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Submitted by Carlos Oya on
All these are very important questions and I would like to share some views that may contrast a bit with some conventional wisdom. I am in fact somewhat puzzled by some of the comments made in this blog and will be brief by throwing some general questions, whose answer might helpstir some substantive debate: Question 1: How did successful agricultural exporters (countries) achieve their success (notably in parts of Latin America and East Asia)? Was it through voters telling governments what they need? What sorts of interventions were conducive to agricultural transformations New Agricultural Countries? In East Asia (quite apart from land reform)? In Netherlands? Denmark? In South Africa? In Northeast Brazil? etc etc. And I hope the response to this is not a simple catch-all argument that 'Africa is different'. Question 2: What is the main difference between agricultural sectors in many SSA countries and the most dynamics parts of Asia? Democracy? 'Smart subsidies'? Or the proportion of cultivated land under irrigation? Or the intensity of fertilizer use (how was achieved there)? Or the reduction in market risk and volatility faced by producers? Question 3: Priority focus on smallholder productivity? "there is a bigger economic kick to smallholder productivity increases than for large farms if that means—as it probably does—that the income benefits of productivity increases for smallholders are more widely spread to poor consumers." This well-known demand/consumer linkage unfortunately ignores the importance of employment linkages. If the kind of large-scale farming promoted is labour intensive (horticulture, tea, etc.) and requires increasing proportions of non-casual labour (due to skill needs and so on), why wouldn't the wage income generated create the same positive spillover effects? Of course this should not be an either or but all too often it is argued that all efforts must focus on smallholder productivity. This assumes that a) the little wage employment smallholders create is decent and that family members (women and children -!-) are better off employed at home. Question 4: if many of the classic fertiliser subsidy interventions were widespread and costly (precisely because intended to spread to masses of smallholders through government agencies and NGOs) why do I always hear this ad hoc hypothesis that large-scale farmers captured them? Where is the evidence in Malawi, for example? Who are these large-scale farmers? Why not 'captured' by sections of the a differentiated smallholder peasantry (more plausible if there is such capture)? Why not captured by the same dynamic traders that liberalization has intended to promote? The key question is whether a broad fertiliser subsidy policy for 'all' farmers in the context of scarce resources is a better option (opportunity cost) than an ambitious public investment plan to significantly increase irrigation infrastructure in suitable areas and for suitable crops (especially those that display much higher labour intensities). I think generally these debates and fora would benefit from: a) more learnings from history (and not just the immediate recent history); b) a more holistic agrarian political economy approach - centred not on market vs government failures but on the sorts of factors that historically determine changes in agrarian structures and social relations that then spur technological adoption, competition and (market or non-market) compulsion to increase productivity; c) less reliance on static and a-historical 'problem-solving' approaches to development problems. Some problems require generations of interventions, long maturity, trial-error, and cannot be solved in the course of short cycles of donor-driven projects. Hence the political economy of steady increasing resource mobilization (domestically or through foreign aid) for substantial state interventions remains a central issue. And, by the way, I am a human being but not sure if 3+6 = 9...