It’s one of the enduring puzzles of the development world: the key technology that could quickly bring most of the world’s poorest people out of poverty is long established, well understood, readily available…and mostly unused.
Today, in peaceful, fertile Uganda, 87% of smallholder farmers still use saved grain as seed, a technology unchanged in 12,000 years that guarantees miserable yields and plenty of hunger. How can we possibly account for the fact that this still goes on, today, in 2014?
The tendency in the aid world is to try to answer this question in a nice, sterile, politics-free safe-zone. We’ll talk about access to finance. We’ll dream up cool little mobile platforms to allow farmers to buy seed on layaway. We’ll fund research and improve breeding methods. We might even capitalize some Seed companies.
What most of us won’t do is wade waist-deep into the institutional/regulatory morass behind any given African country’s seed industry. Heaven forbid!
Which is what makes this evaluation paper by James Joughin for the World Bank so valuable. Joughin, an agricultural economist, actually worked at Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture for over three years, so he’s plenty well acquainted with the muck. And so, he jumps right in.
Here, for those of you who have been itching to know, is how the Ugandan Seed Certification System’s key institutions work (or, rather, don’t work):
i. The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries (MAAIF)
It consists of the ministry headquarters and seven semi-autonomous agencies… A core functional analysis in 2001 made clear the dysfunctional nature of the ministry and proposed a new structure. It has not been implemented, largely because of resistance within the ministry. The result is that a structure which was judged inappropriately configured in 2002 is still in place now.
(ii) The Crop Protection Department
Under the Directorate of Crop Resources, the Crop Protection Department is in charge of all matters related to plant health. It manages the Phytosanitary and Quarantine Service and the National Seed Certification Service (NSCS)… The department is underfunded and chronically weak. It claims that staff need training in all areas of their responsibility, even though most have attended numerous (donor-funded) training courses already.
(iii) The National Seed Certification Service
The NSCS was established by the Agricultural Seed and Plant Statute, 1994, although it did not become operational until 2001. It is mandated to play a key role in seed quality assurance including licensure of seed dealers, field crop inspection, sampling and laboratory testing, official certification, and the sealing of seed bags. It is also responsible for testing varieties for distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability (DUS) and for value for cultivation and use (VCU). The NSCS develops rules and regulations for the seed industry and is supposed to monitor and ensure compliance.
The NSCS has received years of support but has never managed to undertake even a fraction of its mandate. For at least 10 years, there have been regular calls to make the NSCS semi-autonomous (Ferris and Ojok 2006), following the precedent for cotton, coffee, and dairy certifiers, and even the NAADS. Semi-autonomy for the NSCS is now MAAIF policy…and NSCS management say they support this change. But nothing has happened. Others have called for the NSCS to delegate tasks to local government or to accredit the Uganda Seed Traders Association or private companies to inspect seed fields and test seed. The NSCS is clearly reluctant to make such changes.
Various hypotheses are put forward as the driver of the NSCS’ foot-dragging. They often concern the various sources of rent (import licenses; payments for lax inspection or not inspecting at all; refusal to inspect without “facilitation” by the client; seed companies paying for certification, and so on) although nothing is on record about such actions. But why does the NSCS license companies that cannot produce decent seed? And why does it not inspect them? Why does it look the other way when it knows companies are not following best practices, when it knows companies are handling low-quality product, and when it knows fakes are present in the market? The NSCS has a complement of eight staff members and complains about lack of resources.
You get the picture: the bureaucratic system that Seed Companies have to navigate to bring new improved seed to market legally is a huge, malodorous, energy-sapping mess. NSCS manages a kind of trifecta: delaying the introduction of new varieties, penalizing companies that play by the rules and creating an enabling environment for Fake Seed.
If this plainly dysfunctional regulatory system hasn’t been reformed, it’s not for lack of ideas, or for lack of calls for reform. Joughin details the two-dozen studies commission by just about everyone from the ministry itself to multilaterals to every conceivable donor partner over the last fifteen years. He luxuriates over weekness of the reform effort. He never quite throws up up his hands and declares that this crazy, dysfunctional bureaucracy is immune to reform, but you can tell he wants to.
When I first looked at the paper, I thought it was a case study in applied micro-Acemoglu-and-Robinsonomics. But on second reading, I have my doubts.
Because it’s not immediately evident how Uganda’s byzantine Seed Certification process benefits the Ugandan Ruling Elite. And it’s not immediately clear how simplifying it would threaten that elite, either. There’s some suggestion that some unscrupulous people within some of the Seed companies might prefer not to be too-closely supervised, but if anything the bigger, more powerful Seed companies would appear to have a powerful interest in protecting their brand from crooks and counterfeiters.
In fact, as I thought about it, I think I’ve seen a much better description of the kind of institutional inertia Joughin describes, not in any kind of academic paper, but on The Wire. The same type of ingrained bureaucratic guerrilla obstructionism that keeps the Baltimore Police Department (not-)working looks to be very much in play here.
Just like the war on drugs isn’t called off because its biggest victims are also the most powerless people in society, Uganda doesn’t take decisive steps to make improved Seed available to poor farmers simply because their problems carry no political weight, while the handful of people who would suffer from reform are ideally placed to sabotage it.
In a way, Joughin more or less gives the game away on page 29, writing “The reality is that NSCS staff know that if the institution was granted autonomy, they would all be sacked.”