Failures and Meta-Failures

It’s true, isn’t it? It’s shocking how much of what we read about food security in rural Africa amounts to some variation on “smallholder farmers lack access to X.”

Sure, the X varies depending on the focus of the person doing the talking: education, credit, medical care, mosquito nets, clean water, agronomic advice, seed, irrigation, and an “etc.” that’s as long as the list of Africa’s woes. But the basic structure is always the same.

I think that points to a kind of meta-deprivation. It’s not just that people in much of subsaharan Africa lack access to the things they need, it’s that they lack access to the means of gaining access to the things they need.

Key among them: markets, markets that actually work properly, that are fair and reliable and trustworthy.

I see this clearly in Uganda. It’s not that markets are absent in Uganda: they’re all around, both literally and metaphorically. They bustle, they operate, they’re not “missing”. It’s just that trust in market transactions is extremely low. The suspicion that the person you’re buying from or selling to might be trying to cheat you is ever present, and fraud and abuse are widespread.

Policing markets, ensuring trade is minimally fair and fraud is punished, these are core state competences. These aren’t things that development partners can really do for a country: it either gets it together enough to do them itself, or they don’t get done.

In Uganda, the institutions designed to oversee market transactions are exceptionally weak. Development partners’ response tends to be piece-meal: if the market fails and deprives smallholder farmers of access to credit, an MFI comes in and extends access to credit. If the market fails and deprives farmers of access to seed, USAID comes in tries to help out seed producers. For each failure, there’s an aid project. Or, realistically, several.

What I see less of is people grasping that these individual failures are all just manifestations of the broader meta-failure. And that, being a failure of the state to carry out core-competencies, that meta-failure may not actually be resolvable via development assistance.