Honourable Folks, there’s no government in the world whose prime duty is to feed its citizens. That’s the task God gave to the citizens themselves. Mudzadya thukuta lanu [you will have to sweat to make the soil produce anything].
On its part, government collects tax in order to provide public goods and services—roads, markets, schools, hospitals, security, etc. Sometimes it minimises disparities between the haves and the have-nots by taxing the former and channelling the revenue to the so-called pro-poor programmes.
Such redistribution of wealth is what may justify the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), the cost of which has gone up more than twelvefold since it was introduced seven years ago. Last year 10 percent of the entire National Budget (K40.6 billion) was allocated to Fisp. This year it has risen to K60.1 billion with a beneficiary reach of 1.5 million households, loosely defined as extremely poor and vulnerable.
Political interference aside (and of course, there’s too much of it resulting in compromised criteria and internal systems for ensuring transparency and accountability), Fisp is proving to be a grossly inefficient system for achieving food security.
The targeted group is too poor to keep and use the fertiliser it gets for free. Much of it ends up being sold to the ineligible so the money can be used for buying immediate needs—food, clothes, etc. Consequently, Fisp may bring food security at the national level but for some years now, the number of eligible beneficiaries is the same as, if not less than, the number of the hungry poor requiring relief handouts later in the year.
This means even after investing 10 percent of the National Budget on food production, government has also to source an equivalent of 35 to 40 percent of the Fisp budget for subsiding consumption of the same extremely poor and vulnerable group.
It’s also a fact that although Fisp has been there for the past seven years, hardly any of the beneficiaries graduate to become self-reliant. Instead, Fisp only helps create dependency syndrome. No wonder some chiefs and MPs start asking government for relief handouts even before the harvest time. To them, government has a duty to feed the people. It’s no longer that people have the duty to sweat and fend for themselves as our parents proudly did in 1949.
Of course, politicians on the government side also take advantage and use real or imaginary hunger to play Santa in anticipation of tangible returns in the form of rural votes.
In these days when the entire world is affected by green house gases, it doesn’t require much transformational thinking to realise that good rains will be as scarce as comet and that almost every year, there’s likely to be a mixture of good rains in some parts and drought and too much rain in other parts.
Fisp becomes a waste of scarce revenue unless the rains are good which noone can guarantee. Prudence would, therefore, require that Fisp goes hand in hand with strategies such as irrigation farming contained in the Greenbelt Belt Initiative (GBI) which is heavily touted but scantly funded.
There could have been a balance in how the 10 percent of the budget is shared between Fisp and GBI. The challenge is that Fisp is perceived to be vote-sensitive and politicians on the ruling side don’t want to take risks for the good of the country.
What also completely misses in the Fisp debate is what public goods and services the taxpayer foregoes to make Fisp work. By stashing so much money in Fisp, the government remains with much less money to invest in the health, education and other sectors.
These days, even referral hospitals may lack basics such as sutures, gloves and painkillers. Quality of education in public schools is getting worse by the day with no end in sight. We have also learned with shock how so poorly funded is law enforcement that even Blantyre Police can be allocated a K2 million as its monthly operational budget!
True, government has the duty to ensure food security but the way we are going about it is not cost-effective and it’s done at the expense of core tasks of the public sector. Besides, our obsession with food security is done at the expense of investing in other productive areas so that we can boost our capacity to produce goods and services that can be sold on the international market.