A Man of the Soil

By David Lepeska

Agronomist Stephen Carr gauges the degree of hunger stalking the Malawian countryside by opening his front door. “In a bad year I have 12 starving people on my doorstep every morning begging for food,” said Carr, who has lived in a cabin on Zomba mountain in southern Malawi since 1989. “This last year I had two old ladies in a month.”

As Carr’s stoop can attest, two bountiful maize harvests have filled stomachs and cupboards across this devastatingly poor sliver of southern Africa. Malawi exported a record 280,000 tons of maize last fall and felt generally flush for the first time in recent memory – a direct result of a bold new government-run fertilizer subsidies program.

Although loathe to take any credit, this humble octogenarian used his intimate knowledge of Malawian smallholder farming, his familiarity with the donor community and his aggressive charm to reduce donor opposition to the subsidies that helped the farmers buy the fertilizer that enriched the soil that grew the maize that overturned received wisdom in Washington.

Stumbling toward success

After graduating from London University in 1952, Carr moved to Sudan and began working with small-scale farmers. Years later Carr moved with his wife to Uganda, where they worked as agricultural missionaries and had two children. “We were extremely happily settled,” said Carr.

So much so that in 1971 he was considering an application for Ugandan citizenship when the Obote government was overthrown. The underlings of new strong-armed dictator Idi Amin Dada learned of Carr’s efforts to relocate locals to more fertile lands. “Without asking anybody they assumed that I was organizing a guerrilla camp to overthrow the government,” he said. “We grabbed our family and we escaped.”

Thus began the institutional mid-section of his career, from agricultural adviser posts with the governments of Sudan and Tanzania to a position with the world’s foremost development institution. “I joined the World Bank almost by accident,” Carr said of his hiring.

In mid-1978 the bank needed someone familiar with southern Sudan, its languages, farming and traditions, and it settled on Carr, who had spent two dozen years living in huts in African villages. “The bank found me moderately useful and so eventually I finished up as principal agriculturalist for all of sub-Saharan Africa,” Carr remembered. He also won the Royal African Society’s medal for “dedicated services to Africa” and became an Officer of the British Empire along the way.

In 1989 Carr approached retirement age in the World Bank and was anxious to get back to village-level work. He had planned to return to Uganda but had second thoughts. “I was sent to Malawi by the bank half a dozen times and encountered the worst poverty, and the most intransigent agricultural problems that I’d seen anywhere on the continent,” he recalled. “I decided I’d be of more use here than Uganda.”

A second career

In Malawi, Carr had a mountain to conquer. “When I came here the opposition to a subsidy by WB and USAID was so strong that it was absolutely like a brick wall,” he said. Although small fertilizer subsidies were offered through the 1980s and into the ‘90s, donors refused to extend the policy and it soon ended.

After attempting several organic soil improvement techniques, Carr started a fertilizer-for-work program. Locals built access roads and implemented irrigation and reforestation projects in return for inputs – mostly fertilizer and seed. Even with support from USAID and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, “it just became apparent at the end of ten years that we were not getting anywhere near the number of people on board, that this was never going to feed the country,” Carr recalled. “So I just switched my efforts.”

That switch occurred just before a devastating harvest in 2005, which prompted newly elected President Bingu wa Mutharika to reinstate and increase fertilizer subsidies despite staunch skepticism from the United States, Britain, and the World Bank. “As long as I’m president,” Mutharika famously declared, “I don’t want to be going to other capitals begging for food.”

The Malawi government turned to Carr to soften the international community’s opposition to Malawi’s fertilizer subsidies. Carr explained to major donors that at current prices the great majority of Malawians had no hope of buying fertilizer and thus little chance of feeding themselves without help.

Constant rejection spurred him on. At one event an American aid official told him the U.S. did not tolerate subsidies. Carr pounced. ”’Would you like to clarify,’” he asked her, ”’that while it’s perfectly alright for yellow, brown, or white people to be subsidized, you will not tolerate subsidies for black people?’” Carr recalled with a laugh. After another speech, a friend approached and told him he liked the subsidies idea but it wasn’t sustainable. “But 800,000 tons of famine relief every year is?” Carr responded.

“What one has to ram home to people is that there is not a third way,” he explained. “You either make inputs available to farmers so that they can grow their own food or you deny them the opportunity of growing enough food for themselves and you have hungry people and you stop them from actually starving by bringing in relief.”

The end of the rainbow

Over time Carr wore the opposition down, and President Mutharika’s subsidy plan went into effect in early 2006 with $8 million from the U.K.’s Department for International Development. The results have been staggering, with corn harvests nearly tripling from 1.2 million metric tons in 2005 to 3.4 million metric tons in 2007. Some, like U.S. ambassador Alan Eastham, believe the bountiful harvests are merely the result of good rains. But eight of the past 20 years witnessed as much precipitation as 2006 and 2007.

According to Carr the reason for success was simple: fertilizer became affordable for a larger portion of the population. The World Bank’s subsidy program of the 1980s and early ‘90s subsidized 35 percent of the fertilizer cost, enabling only the wealthiest quarter of the population to buy fertilizer. The new government-run plan, which subsidizes 70 percent of the cost, is affordable for two-thirds of the populace.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, now uses Malawi as Exhibit A in his “aid is good” argument. The country’s success has sparked a reappraisal of the value of farm basics — fertilizer, improved seed, and farmer education — and could ultimately become a tipping point for public support of fertilizer subsidies. Carr believes a few more good years would change donor minds.

Yet hurdles remain. The government has taken a staunch lead role, giving Malawi’s relatively mature private sector minimal involvement. This has meant slower distribution, according to Carr, but could become more problematic in the near future. USAID has demanded a greater role for the private sector as a condition of its acceptance of the subsidy program, which means continued governmental control could jeopardize the program.

Still, Malawi has undergone an economic sea change, as Carr’s empty front stoop can attest. Even more encouraging, a Malawian doctor recently reported an 80 percent drop in seriously malnourished children at his hospital.

Carr is happy to have played a part. “What I have done is act as a midwife,” he said. “It was Malawians did the hard labor.”

-- posted on devex.com on 18 May 2008


Alanna said...

I wonder how this model will affect decision-making in the world food crisis we're now facing.

David said...

You might find a few answers to that question in the very next story: