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Zimbabwe's limited fiscal space is constraining agricultural development?

Defining fiscal space
Fiscal space is defined by the balance between government revenue (i.e. tax), denoted by T and government expenditure, denoted by G, through time. For instance, if G < T, then there is a fiscal surplus, but if G > T, then there is a fiscal deficit. A sustained or perpetual deficit through time results in build-up of annual deficits, leading to an unsustainable high debt. With a high level of debt, the government cannot borrow on the international market, and its ability to finance future deficits, i.e. the fiscal space is limited.
Zimbabwe currently endures very limited fiscal space since debt distress is undermining the capacity of the country to service its debt obligations. Accumulation of external payment arrears since 2000 (including interest charges) has resulted in public and publicly guaranteed debt reaching 51% of GDP and was projected to reach US$7.2 billion by December 2014 (Chinamasa, 2014).
How does limited fiscal space constrain agric development?
The country’s credit worthiness in the international community has been eroded and efforts are currently being made to reengage with the international community. While there may seem to be sufficient ground to argue that limited fiscal space has constrained agricultural growth; constraints to agriculture sector growth may emanate from a variety of angles.
However, it is to a large extent, that Zimbabwe’s limited fiscal space has affected agricultural growth and rural development. Zimbabwe has not been able to access patient capital from international financial institutions (IFIs) as well as global agricultural investment funds.
1. Failure to unlock patient money & innovative financing
With limited fiscal space reflected by an unfavorable credit worthiness, Zimbabwe has limited opportunities to unlock “patient” capital from IFIs. The IMF had closed its Zimbabwe office for over a decade. However, possibly in response to ongoing efforts to reengage with the international community, the IMF office in Zimbabwe has since been re-opened.
IFIs are a source of patient money which is critical for agricultural growth and rural development given the capital intensive nature of agriculture as a business, and the high risk of smallholder agriculture.
In the recent past, agriculture investment funds have grown in Africa as a region. In 2010, 31 agribusiness investment funds were targeted at Africa, with capitalization ranging from $8 million to $2.7 billion (Miller, et al., 2010). These have different asset classes (such as commodities) and financial instruments (for example bonds, listed securities and derivatives). These include both public/donor (with philanthropic objectives) funds as well as private investment funds.
Due to the risk associated with Zimbabwe’s limited fiscal space, private investor funds, for instance debt funds, which are the type of funds that may provide loan capital directly to agriculture may shy away from Zimbabwe.
Credit guarantee schemes are innovative tools that are being utilized to unlock financing of agriculture especially through value chain approaches. Some credit guarantee schemes may involve financiers who will require the government to be guarantor for external agricultural financing. Limited fiscal space compromises government’s ability to guarantee credit e.g. for financing smallholder agriculture.
Debt instruments such as treasury bonds are another form of instruments that the government can use to finance agro-industry and agricultural value chains. In 2014, treasury bonds were issued by the government to input suppliers for the debt owed for inputs supplied through the RBZ quasi-fiscal activities. Limited fiscal space may compromise the government’s ability to meet the commitments to the bonds. This constraints agricultural growth.
In countries such as Nigeria and some Asian and Latin America countries that have benefitted from developed countries’ debt relief, FDI in agriculture/agribusiness is reasonably high. In Latin America and Asia, it is as high as 78% of FDI. Though in Nigeria, the value of agriculture related FDI is proportionately low compared to total FDI, falling within single digit percentages, the country’s agricultural sector benefits from investment funds such as Fund for Agricultural Finance in Nigeria, FAFIN (Ogwumike, 2013; Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority, 2014).
Agricultural investment funds and other innovative financing instruments can play a critical role in agricultural growth and rural development in Zimbabwe, but their success requires “space” for both social and market lending facilities.
2. Lack of public support to absorb shocks
Most rural farmers in Zimbabwe still depend on rain-fed agriculture. However, rainfall patterns are increasingly becoming erratic and less predictable. This makes smallholder agriculture extremely risky and in need of the absorptive capacity to ensure resilience in the event of external hazards. The majority of livelihoods depend on agriculture and the growth of the smallholder agriculture and rural livelihoods improvements can be considered key in achieving economic growth and development. Limited fiscal space however limits ability of the government to absorb the effects of shock and in turn propel agricultural growth and rural development.
3. Low public investment in key drivers for agric growth
Research and Development (R&D) can be considered one of the key drivers of agricultural growth and rural development. The United Nations recommended a minimum threshold of spending 1% of GDP on R&D. Given a scenario of limited fiscal space government has to negotiate this with other investment priorities. In the case of some “inescapable” budget requirements which have immediate/short term implications, resources are often channeled to other priorities e.g. the “next season’s” input support programme. Lower fiscal space and sustained budget deficits may result in starving of strategic investment areas such as R&D and extension.
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