This paper is based on research work carried out the under auspices of the Politics and Policy Processes theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC). It demonstrates that political context matters in agricultural development policy issues, using as illustration the case of the fertilizer subsidy programme (FSP) launched in Malawi in the 2005/2006 growing season. The main argument of the paper is that no matter what the technical arguments for or against particular policy positions are, it is ultimately the configuration of political interests that determine policy outcomes on the ground. Contrary to the traditional and highly stylized perspective, policymaking does not happen in neat distinct stages except perhaps in a minimal sense that policies have to be proposed, legislated and implemented. Policy processes are instead a complex mesh of interactions and ramifications between a wide range of stakeholders who are driven and constrained by the contexts within which they operate.
This study drew essentially on the review of secondary sources (press reports, academic papers, government and donor documents) and on key informant interviews with officials from government, donor agencies, civil society and the private sector. The analysis is structured along five sections. After an introduction, Section 2 explains the origins and context for the fertilizer subsidy programme. Section 3 provides details on the programme and the evolution in thinking within government. Section 4 discusses three different donor positions on the fertilizer programme: those totally opposing it, those supporting it and those reluctant but willing to engage with the government’s policy. Section 5 analyses the programme’s impact and adjustments in government and donor positions. Section 6 provides some concluding reflections.