SMART Subsidies, Smarter People: The Politics of Aid and Food Security in Malawi

By Alexandra Löwe, University of Oxford
Malawi faces a set of unique challenges in its quest to ensure the food security of its smallholder farmers as a result of its dependence on a single drought-intolerant crop. Malawians consume more maize per capita than any other nation in the world, equivalent to two-thirds of daily calorie intake. This maize is produced domestically, almost exclusively by smallholder farmers, who struggle to meet their own consumption needs on dwindling land holdings of decreasing soil fertility. During the 1980s, the decline in maize production per capita was further aggravated by structural adjustment programs and the concomitant agricultural policies that saw the reduction and subsequent eradication of fertilizer subsidies, the dismantling of state marketing structures and the reduction of national food reserves. By the late 2000s, Malawi’s food system was in constant crisis and President Bingu wa Mutharika was widely praised for his decision to resist donor advice, and to reintroduce a large-scale fertilizer subsidy in order to increase domestic maize production. Initially, this Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) aimed to subsidize fertilizer for the 70% of smallholder farmers who were not able to produce marketable maize surpluses or even meet their household consumption needs. 
However, over the FISP’s lifetime, the policy has become one that is better suited to the ideological and technocratic approach of the international community, than the realities of smallholder maize farming. This is partly a result of Malawi’s economic difficulties, and partially due to the influence of the donor community. The resultant fertilizer subsidy is one that is limited in its overall size, forcing the Government of Malawi into a situation where it cannot respond to smallholder farmers’ demands for a universal subsidy, but instead has to target subsidized inputs at the “poorest” 40% of households. Unfortunately, this targeted subsidy does not correspond to social and economic realities or risks of maize production in Malawi, particularly mutual relationships of obligation between rural households. 
As a result of this targeting, rural communities in my field sites in Ntcheu now subvert the intentions of the FISP by sharing the inputs received through the program equally among all households, regardless of poverty levels. This has undermined the ability of the Farm Input Subsidy Program to transform maize production systems, to end Malawi’s “nitrogen drought” and to ensure food security at both the national and household levels. Instead, the FISP serves merely as a safety-net policy that does little more than increase household consumption levels for a small number of households. But it fails to increase production to move these households into the category of surplus producers, who may then subsequently be able to produce maize for commercial markets without the need for assistance in the form of subsidies. 
Since the introduction of structural adjustment programs, Malawi has based its food security policies on simplistic assessments of production systems, marketing structures, and other misplaced notions of what is needed to transform the agricultural sector. Frequently external actors, particularly the donor community, have imposed these policies. However, if food security is to be achieved, an approach that takes the realities of maize production in Malawi into account fully is needed. Such a strategy would require, first and foremost, reaching agreement on the importance of national food sovereignty, reaching explicit agreement between donors and the government on the aims of food security policies such as fertilizer subsidies, and a better understanding of how maize is produced within local contexts, including the social, economic and political structures that affect maize production systems. 

Photos of Student Fieldwork