Command Agriculture in Zimbabwe: can it be transformed?

Taruvinga Magwiroto

“Command Agriculture” is a curious name to a government initiative meant to finance farmers and boost food productivity in the country. The first thing in the overhaul of the model is to change the name.

But for the record, the “martial-sounding” name comes from the fact that when it was incepted, it was coordinated by the army. In fact the programme was jointly administered by the army and AGRITEX. I want to believe that the initial thinking was that the army brings in discipline to the processes, and thereby fairness. And of course, the initial strategy was also down to the factional wars in Zanu PF at the time: roping in the army “faction-proofed” the programme from usurpation or hijacking, as it were.

But broadly, Command Agriculture has been accused of much the same ills as all other prior government interventions in agriculture: corruption in the allocation of beneficiaries; inadequate complementary support services; robustness of the model; learning and evaluation. I will expand these points individually in the proceeding paragraphs.

Corruption in the allocation of beneficiaries

There are a number of issues that can be discussed here. The first is that government revenue comes from tax, and government subsidies are a re-distribution within the economy, not a real earning. The general logic of government intervention is to re-allocate resources to strategic sectors, and to the weaker members of society. In this case, it seems to be both, though poorly articulated. Government is re-distributing resources to food production, which is a good thing. But they are not taking care to ensure that the poorest of the poor are benefitting, which becomes problematic.

We know that different people have differential accesses and command to societal resources, depending on one’s power and influence. If the government does not make special effort to equalise the playing field, it goes without saying that the already-rich, the already-haves, the already-well linked will benefit at the expense of the weak. Obviously ethical questions arise. If the State cannot protect the interests of the poor, who will?

The government bureaucrat-politician nexus form the core of the state. If no special monitoring and accountability frameworks are in place, the programme is open to massive corruption and manipulation. We have already seen through the deliberations of Biti’s  Parliamentary Select Committee that there are huge sums of money which are difficult to account for in previous instalments of Command Agriculture.

Monitoring of Processes

Process evaluation and monitoring is probably the most critical thing for this kind of intervention. Simple records of what, who, where and why have to be kept as a matter of course. But the findings from the Parliamentary committees found that there were lots of loopholes. The process management was a shambles, opening up opportunity for corruption and all sorts of chicanery.

Complimentary support services

Agricultural research, extension and education have to be supported to ensure that farmers get the technical support they need to maximise output. The support could be in different forms: better transport; freeing extension workers from clerical functions so that they spend more time in the field; making maximum use of ICTs to increase reach of extension services; and better quality initial education for field level extension workers; and continuing education for them.

I am aware that the extension system in Zimbabwe was the pride of Africa at some point in our history, but we have since lost this distinction for various reasons. Furthermore, the coming in of new farmers and on-going changes in climate patterns mean that major changes are happening. The advances in theory and practices all means that support services need to change with the times. But ultimately, it all boils down to the support services’ ability to help farmers solve their production problems and help them maximise the opportunities open to them.

Robustness of the model

If the model is to be robust, a number of questions have to be answered. First off, is this a business model where government allocates resources in the hope that people pay back? If so, then their consideration would be to give the loans to those with the highest chances of repaying. In other words, to the already-haves. If it is like that, why not let the private sector do it?

If on the other hand the objective is to help the poor so that they boost their food-production capacity, then the criteria for beneficiaries must be made clear.

Because there is a clear (non-written) expectation, borne from history, that these government loans are basically freebies. If that is the case, where is the fairness in giving tax payers moneys to the already rich? What does that say of our values, and governance system? What does that say to the people whom we are asking for fiscal support? What does that say about our commitment to ending poverty and fighting inequality? What does that say about the Sustainable Development Goals, about “leaving no one behind?”

The government has to clarify the objectives of this model, and articulate certain philosophical issues that currently obfuscate the programme. It is shrouded in too many unknowns, opening its flanks to snipes about “ugly-culture”. It has to be ethically and methodologically robust, not a wishy-washy intervention.

Conclusion

The Zimbabwe government needs to learn lessons from the past. It has to be seen to be learning. Institutionalisation of corruption is the worst thing, and has to be dismantled one brick at a time, starting now. Change has to begin from somewhere.

Read more at www.livestockmatters.blog

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