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.

3 thoughts on “Failures and Meta-Failures”

  1. Dead on. And poor people are too desperate to hold the state accountable for that failure. Ergo, invest in SMEs, as their owners, partners, and employees may at least have the security to ask the state for a minimal level of service.

    1. Agreed, too desperate or without access/institutions to hold states accountable. Small world seeing you here, Carl.
      -Regards, John Firestone (The Noon’s old tenant)

  2. Policing of markets would lead to more trust. Individuals and groups that trust more than others have more development – according to some analysts. But better policing requires better institutions which development cannot achieve. I don’t see how they can stop the kick backs. No doubt someone has stats on corruption trends but it does not seem that they are declining. Yesterday on a short journey I went through about 6 road blocks. Policing of markets is a cost to the consumer.
    Also interference in markets by government leads to difficulties at the individual level. Grain Purchasing Boards are parastatals which pay late to the hindrance of the development of the next crop. Without bridging finance things just decline and production falls.

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