Food security has always been a big issue in Malawi. The rural population ekes out a living on very small plots of land – households headed by women have an especially tough time, often lacking the labour resources for farming. Raising yields is imperative and so fertilizer — and whether or not to subsidize it — has been a constant theme in the country’s debate around agricultural policy. Starting in the late 1980s, the World Bank urged the government to cut back the subsidy, arguing that public money was better spent elsewhere. But following the near famine of 2005 the government is subsidizing fertilizer again with DFID funding.
A New York Times article on poverty, international dependence, and state intervention in Malawi suggests that the fertilizer subsidies have succeeded in preventing famine and jump-starting agricultural growth. This strategy flies in the face of the World Bank advice. Barking back at the World Bank and its policy prescriptions is one thing, successfully implementing alternative agricultural programs is another. What specific political and infrastructural conditions enabled Malawi to successfully subsidize and distribute fertilizer to local farmers in the first place? Only if this question is answered can the case of Malawi be held up as an example to replicate.