Interview: the Limitations of Democracy in Pro-Poor Policy Making
November 12, 2012
An Ethiopian man casts his vote during the country's 2005 elections (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo).

With the movement toward democratic governance that has taken place across Africa in recent years, one would expect the trend to encourage broad-based, pro-poor policy making — especially in agriculture. This is because the majority of the electorate in many African countries continues to be rural and economically disadvantaged, and would be expected to favour politicians advocating anti-poverty measures targeting those living in the countryside.

However, Colin Poulton, a research fellow at the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP), argues in a recent working paper that it is not that simple. Questioning what motivates governments’ electoral strategy, Poulton explains that African politicians are more likely to rely on ethnic allegiances and social/political control to secure votes rather than advocating populist policy solutions. To learn more about his research findings and their implications, Africa Portal intern Vanessa Humphries contacted Poulton by phone in London.

Vanessa Humphries: What prompted your initial research focus on the political economy of agricultural policy in Africa?

Colin Poulton: I have a background as an economic agriculturalist, concentrating on agriculture policy in Africa. Throughout my work, I have questioned what motivates states to pursue particular policies. Finding that the answer is rooted in the political systems of a country, I wanted to examine if over 15 years of democratization in African countries has translated into making governments more accountable to the rural majority, or encouraged pro-poor agricultural policy and investment.

VH: As your research shows, democratization has not necessarily encouraged pro-poor agricultural policies. Is this what you expected to uncover?

CP: We expected to see democratization having a slightly stronger impact than we did; what we found instead was competitive clientelism, with different groups competing to give handouts to voters, such as input subsidy programs for fertilizer or seed vouchers. So voters are getting something in exchange for their vote, but it tends to be small — a long way from a coherent agricultural policy — and it certainly neglects medium- to long-term investments in public goods, such as research, extension or building the capacity of state agents.

So far the focus on African policy debates in agriculture is more technical, and not sufficiently political. What we have learned from our research is that a careful political analysis must accompany technical recommendations.

VH: Your findings reveal the strongest incentives for political action on pro-poor agricultural policy come not from democratic elections, but from economic dependence on the agriculture sector and perceived rural threats to regime survival. What are the implications of these findings for policy makers?

CP: Of the two factors, it is the rural threat to a regime that has the strongest influence on pro-poor policy. Ethiopia, for example, is a country where there are a number of threats to the current government. The previous two regimes have fallen because they neglected rural areas which became bases for insurgency movements. To prevent this history from repeating, the current regime knows they have to provide broad-based benefits in rural areas to consolidate their rule. As such, they have been investing heavily in agricultural extension services and pro-poor agricultural policy.

It is also striking that in countries such as Ethiopia and also Rwanda, where the imperative for rapid rural growth is the strongest, regimes are driven to do so by threats to their survival. Both countries are investing in land-titling programs which provide farmers with increased security that benefits of land investment will come back to them, rather than be reallocated to someone else down the line. But it is interesting that the Rwandan and Ethiopian regimes are pushing for such policies as they are letting go of a mechanism of control that they potentially had over people. At the central level these regimes are not known for allowing a full range of political freedoms, but at the grassroots level they are transferring greater control to individuals.

In other countries in our sample we see that a chief’s control over land becomes very much a part of the political process. When a government gets a chief on their side, the chief can influence votes through excluding access to new land or granting land to people who are supporting the right political party. This discretionary allocation is part of how governments retain power and control of the political process. In such cases, if a donor or technocrat proposes a land-titling program on the grounds that it would benefit rural growth, the political incentives would not be there.

VH: If political incentives are an important predictor for the adoption of certain agricultural policies, are you saying the same recommendations made to countries with different political contexts would be implemented in different ways?

CP: Yes, this is a very important message. A lot of agricultural policy debate in Africa is concentrated on finding something that works in one place and suggesting it be done in another. What our research shows, however, is that you have to look very carefully at the political incentives in different countries, or you could pursue something that has a very different impact in the second place than it did in the first, such as is the case with land-titling.

VH: If you were advising donors or national governments on promoting pro-poor agricultural policy, how would you translate your research findings into practical recommendations?

CP: So far the focus on African policy debates in agriculture is more technical, and not sufficiently political. What we have learned from our research is that a careful political analysis must accompany technical recommendations. Political backing must be there. The big challenge is for donors; some African countries that have strong incentives to invest in agricultural may not have free and fair elections that the West approves of, for example. In political discourse about aid policy in the UK, and I assume the United States as well, this is a message that is difficult to communicate. The assumption is that ‘all good things go together’ and our findings suggest that this is not the case.

VH: What policy audience do you think will benefit most from your research?

CP: I think future research is needed before it becomes really useful to donors, but the next group that should find it very interesting is civil society. This research really sheds light on the importance of building awareness among rural populations about the power of their votes. Ultimately, civil society has an important role in downplaying ethnic differences. The striking thing is that poor smallholder farmers in central Kenya feel they have more in common with the wealthy elite in their area, rather than a poor farmer in western Kenya. But if you want to start getting investment in national public goods that benefit smallholder farmers, people need to start thinking, ‘Where do my interests really lie? What do I really need from the presidential candidate in return for my vote?’ This sort of thinking can be influenced through civil society campaigns. The next big research question is to look at how influential such groups can be in Africa.

To read more on Colin Poulton’s research findings, read his working paper Democratisation and the Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa.

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