05:12 - Source: CNN
Training South Africa's young farmers

Editor’s Note: Tewodaj Mogues is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Cluster Leader for Public Investments and Institutions under the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets. She also serves as co-editor of the European Journal of Development Research. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) —  

The Global Food Security Act, an Obama-era piece of legislation that marshals foreign aid to speed up agricultural growth and reduce hunger in poor countries, will expire this year if it is not renewed.

Fortunately, it seems to have bipartisan support, as evidenced last month when the Republican-controlled Senate reauthorized the legislation for another five years. It will soon face a vote in the House, and its odds there are relatively high – with 107 cosponsors (including 30 Republicans) already lined up.

But even if the bill passes both houses, it remains to be seen whether President Donald Trump will sign it into law. If the administration’s stance on another very similar Obama-era initiative – the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, which increases food security by boosting agricultural productivity, predominantly in African countries – is anything to go by, the chances for renewal appear quite low. On the one-year anniversary of the Trump presidency, the Treasury Department declared the US would pull out of that program.

Tewodaj Mogues
Elliott O'Donovan
Tewodaj Mogues

This continued uncertainty about US foreign support to food-insecure regions like Africa is clearly not welcome. Yet, it presents an opportunity for both Africans and the development sector. Research and development (R&D) in agriculture can be the key that unlocks Africa’s door to the Green Revolution, a revolution that fueled Asia’s growth in the 1960s and 1970s.

Study after study has shown that the returns on investment in agricultural R&D in Africa exceed any ambitious investment banker’s wildest fantasies: For example, every additional dollar spent by the government on agricultural research would increase national income by $12.50 in Tanzania, and the productivity of agricultural workers by $12.40 in Uganda. (In most contexts, a net return of 15%, or $1.15 on the dollar invested, would be deemed very respectable – here it is more than 10 times that.) Given these remarkably high payoffs, one would expect that African governments would place their own money where the returns are.

Not so – even when accounting for the more limited resources African governments have at their disposal. For example, the agricultural research intensity ratio in African countries, a measure of a country’s public spending on agricultural technology relative to the country’s agricultural gross domestic product, has fallen far behind the rest of the world and has, in fact, declined over the last three decades.

Why this stark contrast between the potential contribution of, and persistent underinvestment in, agricultural R&D? Two factors are working hard against agricultural research investments being attractive to the leaders who make resource allocation decisions, and politics is at the heart of these: First, agricultural technology has a lengthy gestation period. The benefits of such investments typically do not materialize until a long time after budgets are allocated for them. Developing an improved crop variety takes seven to 10 years of breeding activity, often much longer.

Over such a period, ministers of agriculture understand they can get fired, and political leaders may be ousted from office, whether through democratic or other means. In the context of many African countries’ political uncertainty, combined with weak political institutions that hinder policy continuity, it simply doesn’t pay for leaders to invest funds in activities if they may not be around to reap the political returns.

Second, agricultural R&D spending is among the most “invisible” types of investments governments can make. Low levels of literacy in Africa, mostly among rural populations, mean that those constituents most likely to benefit from agricultural research investments are also those who would not readily be able to tell that their higher yields from improved seed varieties are the fruits of public investments in breeding programs.

In contrast, government subsidies on fertilizers, which usually come in the form of paper vouchers handed out by government extension officers, are easily attributable to politicians. They have correspondingly received lavish attention in African budgets, despite the rather mixed performance of these input subsidies in spurring agricultural growth.

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Development experts and advocacy groups in the US who are fighting against food insecurity are right to appeal for increased US aid for African agriculture. But given the political climate at home that renders aid highly precarious, they should also encourage African leaders themselves to do the right thing by their poor populations.

It’s not enough to simply keep reciting what “the right thing” is, however. Instead, US development policy advisors first need to understand, then creatively help poor countries work through and around the political incentives that may stand in the way of good agricultural policies and investments in Africa.