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October 02, 2012

Issues of concern about Malawi's farming inputs subsidy programme

Malawi’s late president, Bingu Mutharika, reportedly treated his country’s much praised farming inputs subsidy scheme “as a personalised presidential programme, kept that way by the numerous awards that were conferred on the president in recognition of the FISP's achievements.”

So writes Blessings Chinsinga, associate professor at the University of Malawi. He further explains, “It was not possible for technocrats to address concerns by development partners, however constructive, because of Mutharika's heavy and direct involvement in the programme.”

Although he was said to be very unpopular when he died a few months ago, Mutharika is widely credited for spearheading Malawi’s current maize self-sufficiency through the Farm Input Subsidy Programme. He instituted it in the face of opposition by ‘international development experts’ and the country's donors, on whom Malawi is said to depend for up to 40% of its budget. Although the donors later came on board on seeing its successful results, perhaps it is not surprising that Mutharika was subsequently sceptical about the advice/concerns raised by the foreign ‘experts’ that are always part of any aid package.

The previous opposition of the donors and their ‘experts,’ as well as Mutharika’s arrogance on the success of his programme meant that he was not much interested in listening to what they had to say. The unofficial aid rule book says that the recipient must take the advice packaged together with the money by the donor, but perhaps Mutharika’s ‘I told you so’ success gave him more leverage in this situation than would be the case in most cases.

However, Mutharika’s thumbing his nose at the donors’ concerns about certain aspects of the FISP did not mean that they were without validity.

Among them, Chinsinga says, were “…the lack of transparency in the cost of the FISP, especially in relation to overheads, and excessive interference in the award of FISP contracts. They worried that the FISP had become more or less a means for settling political debts, since preference in the award of the contracts was given to those with very close ties to the government, whether their bids were competitive or not.”

Chinsinga points out that despite the fact that the FISP is clearly not sustainable as currently structured and (donor) funded, “subsidies have become more or less an integral part of the social contract between the government and citizens. A government that discontinues the FISP risks voter backlash. In other words, maize subsidies are at the core of Malawi's politics. “

Chinsinga’s article is thoughtfully written and a very good read. It is important because of how almost all the issues he touches on in regards to subsidies and food security apply to most African countries.

African Agriculture

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