China’s Agricultural Development: Lessons for Africa?

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By Hauke Brankamp and Tobias Reichert

In past decades, advice from international institutions on agricultural policies and development strategies was based heavily on support for free markets and minimal public intervention. But in many regions, particularly in Africa, these strategies did not lead to significant poverty reduction and improvements in agricultural productivity. China, on the other hand, was able to reduce hunger and poverty dramatically by applying both public interventions and market mechanisms.

Among other lessons sub-Saharan African can take from China's development strategy, the paper suggests that rural infrastructure should be improved and investments made in agricultural research. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In a paper published recently by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) , Shenggen Fan and the China-DAC Study Group on Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development outlined their views on how Africa could draw lessons from China’s development strategy. They looked in particular at the Chinese government’s unusual “trial-and-error” policy—an evidence-based approach that induced remarkable growth and has now entered its fourth phase. Policies in the 1970s and 1980s focused mainly on agricultural decollectivization, decentralization, and marketing reforms; in the 1980s, the first and most effective step in reducing rural poverty involved increasing administered prices for agricultural products rather than liberalizing markets. Only in the 1990s and 2000s did market liberalization and reforms occur in China’s agricultural as well as manufacturing and service sectors.

Sub-Saharan Africa, in large part, went through externally shaped reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably structural adjustment programs. Some of these reforms led to positive results in the agricultural sector, yet they were not able to foster high and steady rates of economic growth–nor did they succeed in alleviating poverty.

What can African governments learn from China’s experience? The paper identified four crucial policy areas. First, the authors attribute special potential to agriculture-led growth, as experienced in China. For sub-Saharan Africa, this would mean promoting the productivity of small-scale farmers in particular, by securing land rights, strengthening markets, and facilitating access to extension services. In addition, rural infrastructure should be improved and investments made in agricultural research. Second, the authors put forward the idea of applying the Chinese strategy of evidence-based policymaking to sub-Saharan Africa. This includes timely field-testing of policies before their national application as well as phased approaches to the introduction of reforms. Third, the authors note that the design of reform programs should be properly tailored to the aims that are to be achieved. Reforms should also concentrate on strengthening institutions (e.g., research institutions) and building capacity (both human and administrative). And finally, the paper calls for Africa to, as China did, invest in institutions, such national agricultural research and extension system, as well as building up education and training for researchers, farmers, and extension workers.

Hauke Brankamp and Tobias Reichert are food and trade analysts with Germanwatch.

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