Opinion: Thinking and working politically to strengthen agricultural market systems

Bahati Malekela, a farmer and group leader at a rural farm near the Tanzanian village of Idodi, displays tomatoes ready for distribution to a market in nearby Iringa. Photo by: USAID Tanzania / CC BY-NC-ND

Down-and-dirty politics and political roadblocks have thwarted the success of agricultural development projects for decades. To achieve greater success, we need to consider how we can better understand and break down such blocks.

Whether we like it or not, international development efforts are inherently political. Within the agriculture sector, the relationships and power dynamics among market actors influence who a market actor does business with, the nature of the deal made, and the overall competitiveness of the value chain.

Dysfunction in these relationships can create space for inefficiency and corruption. For example, fertilizer imports are often controlled by a cohort of powerful traders, who are often allied with influential government officials. Even where good agricultural land is limited, politically connected firms can secure land rights to establish large commercial farms. Export bottlenecks that stymie most traders can be circumvented by companies with political influence. And these political manipulations are not limited to high-level players. A project designed to expand access to hybrid seeds, for example, might be deliberately stalled by politically connected input suppliers who stand to lose market share.

Shifting the mindset

If agricultural market systems are to become more inclusive and productive, we need a mindset shift. We must consider the long-term effects of power dynamics and shifting political landscapes in the agricultural sector and our market systems strengthening work. This does not mean interfering in politics. Instead, it means doing a better job of understanding market actors’ interests, motivations, relationships, and power dynamics, and anticipating who or what will drive — or block — progress within any given context.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s analytical approach to economic growth provides a potential framework when considering political dynamics. The “inclusive market systems” approach advanced by USAID characterizes a market system as “a dynamic space — incorporating resources, roles, relationships, rules, and results — in which private and public actors collaborate, coordinate, and compete.” They further define the systems as “those that engage and benefit a range of actors, including the poor, women, youth, ethnic minorities, and/or other marginalized groups.” And here is a link to thinking and working politically: “Since market systems contain sub-systems (household systems, value chain systems, etc.), and are connected to health systems, political systems, ecosystems, and the like, project implementers and managers are faced with the challenge of how to define the intervention space.”

“The development community's link to and discussion of power dynamics and politics needs to be more robust and explicit.”

The link between systems and politics

But how are inclusive market systems connected to, and influenced by, political and other external infrastructures? USAID’s leveraging economic opportunities project attempts to probe these issues in case studies and a summary analysis of policy-constrained value chain initiatives under Feed the Future. They concluded that the causal link between project-driven policy interventions and effects on either enterprise growth or poverty reduction were loosely defined, if they were defined at all.

However, the development community's link to and discussion of power dynamics and politics needs to be more robust and explicit. We propose that the thinking and working politically, or TWP, approach would help USAID’s Feed the Future programming illuminate the often down-and-dirty politics and power relations; formal and informal institutions; structural, social, and ideological underpinnings; and incentives driving behavior within the local ecosystem of actors and decision-makers affecting agricultural market systems.

Political economy analysis as a tool

A powerful tool used as part of the TWP approach is the political economy analysis, or PEA. USAID’s applied PEA field guide can help agriculture and Feed the Future projects and professionals use PEA — not only at the design or initial implementation phase to ensure politically savvy programming, but also as part of an ongoing adaptive management approach, per ADS 201, USAID’s operational model for programming in a specific region or country. PEA is a qualitative field research methodology that helps us go beyond analyzing technical and capacity constraints to identify the political, economic, and social interests and structural and institutional forces that can block or enable reform in the agriculture sector.

PEAs generally identify constraints and causality in four areas: foundational factors, rules of the game, dynamics, and the “here and now.” It does not replace sound technical analysis; rather, it provides missing information about other factors inhibiting change and reform in the agricultural sector. Applied regularly, it can help us adapt to the changing context.  

By applying TWP approaches, including the PEA tool, we can improve the effectiveness of inclusive agricultural market systems’ design and implementation. In Serbia, the Leveraging Economic Opportunities project team applied the PEA approach to four market segments, including food processing and agriculture. In doing so, they identified opportunities for improving competitiveness, including a market platform that could improve value chain planning and pinpoint high-potential value chains for growth. On the Feed the Future Enabling Environment for Agriculture project in Uganda, Chemonics applied an analytical framework based on Kingdon's 1984 three-stream model, identifying the problem, policy (solution), and politics (political will), before then ranking policy priorities.

PEA improves upon traditional analysis by capturing the systemic tensions and power dynamics that inhibit change.

What are specific ways in which managers of agricultural market systems programs can think and work politically? We identify four options:

1. Integrate TWP and PEA as part of collaborating, learning, and adapting processes.

PEA should be integrated into the CLA framework, now mandated by USAID as part of the program cycle (ADS 201). PEA delves into too-often ignored or assumed political dimensions and provides critical information on contextual factors otherwise missing from other assessments — but nevertheless crucial to inform program adaptation. The Chemonics-implemented agriculture and rural development support project in Ukraine has some interesting experience in this regard, having developed explicit feedback loops between political and policy lessons learned and the project’s CLA system.

2. Use PEA with capacity development models, including human and institutional capacity development.

PEA can be used as one tool within the HICD performance assessment process to determine incentives and motivations, as well as other performance-related issues within the institutions we seek to strengthen.

3. Apply PEA to specific areas of a project that present significant barriers to success.

If an agricultural project needs to develop an advocacy platform or network around a policy initiative, a PEA — including its analysis of the ecosystem of actors related to the issue or policy at hand — can be useful to ensure advocacy efforts are politically informed and consider all needed decision-makers.

4. Use TWP and PEA to nuance indicator selection for policy or political indicators, and identify those milestones that are critical to demonstrating progress.

Now, as USAID refines its strategy for “country transition” associated with the global food security strategy implementation report, improved policy change indicators are of paramount importance. PEA tools could be used to understand local power dynamics and provide context to the CCIR.5 “Policy Matrix Progress Score,” now being developed for each Feed the Future target country.

By thinking and working politically, and bringing to bear such tools as the PEA, we can improve our understanding of the political issues that can generate systemic change in inclusive market systems and create new opportunities for sustained enterprise growth and poverty reduction.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Philip DeCosse

    Philip DeCosse is the director for the Agriculture and Food Security practice at Chemonics. He has 29 years of expertise working at all levels of agricultural and natural resource market development through business-to-household interventions that link private sector investors to rural resource managers. An agricultural economist, he has designed and led value chain optimization interventions, agricultural statistical surveys, environmental impact assessments, and monitoring and evaluation programming across sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
  • Sharon Van Pelt

    Sharon Van Pelt is the director for the Democracy and Governance practice at Chemonics. She has 25 years of experience in policy dialogue, transparency, local governance, civil society, conflict and violence prevention, and peace building. In 2002, she received the USAID Meritorious Honor Award for advancing policy dialogue and reform on decentralization and transparency in a difficult political environment. Ms. Van Pelt has previously worked in Guatemala, Moldova, and Sri Lanka on policy reform as well as for USAID and UNDP, as well as chief of party for a civil society and media project in Moldova. She has also directed governance and peace building efforts worldwide, including Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In 2012, she was designated as a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) from the International Society for Performance Improvement.