Development research is often associated with issues of policy. Researchers aim to increase our contextual and theoretical knowledge to enhance the creation of "good" development policies. One way of doing this is to identify and learn from harmful policies of the past. The objective of this article is to examine such policychoice explanations by looking at the dominant understandings of the modern history of agriculture in Malawi. These perspectives share the view that the high level of rural poverty is, to a great extent, an outcome of the agricultural policies implemented by the colonial and postcolonial governments. Of crucial importance are the mechanisms whereby the state actively tried to transfer resources from the smallholder sector to the state or to the estate sector. This had a negative impact on the production capacity of the smallholder sector. This article notes that the focus on policies alone is not a sufficient approach to understand the dynamics and limitations of the smallholder sector. The article also points to some methodological weaknesses with policy-choice explanations that are relevant for development research in general.
Development research is in several ways intimately related to policy issues. By increasing our contextual and theoretical understanding of poverty, social exclusion, and inequality, researchers hope to develop tools and recommendations for policymakers. While such recommendations are mainly of concern to economists and political scientists, historians and/or historically oriented researchers also play a role by identifying harmful policies of the past to explain the persistence of underdevelopment and poverty. By doing so, they contribute to the development of policies whose objective is to spur economic and social development. One area in which historically oriented research has played a very important role for policy is in the field of modern agricultural history of Africa (see, e.g., Bates 1981, 1983).
Without questioning the importance of informed policymaking, this article highlights the limitations of an assumption that policies are the driving force of change and/or the obstacles to development. The point of departure is a common set of perspectives on Malawi's modern agricultural history (i.e., in the twentieth century) and their underlying assumptions about the role of various policies in the productive capacities of the smallholder sector. (During the colonial period Malawi was known as Nyasaland but the country here is referred to as colonial Malawi.) World Bank data from the 1960s and onward clearly show that the smallholder sector in Malawi has been characterized by a low and stagnant level of production per capita, revealing a limited productive capacity (World Bank 2001). In addition, the famines of 1903, 1922, 1949, 1992, and 2002 indicate that the productive capacity of the smallholder sector remained low throughout the twentieth century (Bryceson & Fonseca 2005). The question is whether or not this state of affairs is an outcome of harmful agricultural policies. Different scholars take different approaches to the modern agricultural history of Malawi. Yet the various contributions all argue that twentieth-century agriculture has been characterized by a conflict between the smallholder and estate sectors over productive resources and markets, and that in these conflicts the state has intervened in favor of the estate, with the effect of shrinking the productive base for smallholder farmers.
In the first section of this article I summarize three different viewpoints on the agricultural history of Malawi: the first concentrates on the effects of migration on agriculture, the second emphasizes the constraints on the smallholder sector's access to productive resources, and the third focuses on the influence of the market. I conclude that in sharing a focus on colonial and postcolonial policies as an explanation for the poor performance of the smallholder sector, these perspectives all tend to provide a rather static view of both the policies implemented and the objectives behind them. …