Political Economy Analysis Sheds Light on Farmer Behavior in Northern Haiti

December 2, 2019


Photo: Farmer and his rice plants
Photo Credit: Tony Marcelli/USAID AVANSE

This post was authored by Helene Kiremidjian, a Global Practice Specialist for Inclusive Economic Growth at DAI.

When designing and implementing agricultural programs, projects traditionally focus mostly on technical solutions. What technologies can improve farmers’ yields and income? How can we build local supply chains to ensure that farmers can access them? Which partners can we bring in to facilitate farmers’ access to markets? All crucial questions.

But focusing too narrowly on technical matters risks missing important local dynamics that can determine the long-term viability of these solutions.

The AVANSE Program—the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future program in Northern Haiti (2013–2019)—shows the value of integrating political economy analysis (PEA) in agricultural programming. Although PEA was not part of the project start-up in 2013, the project has learned over the past six years to appreciate the impact of political economy dynamics in its work with the government, the private sector, and farmer groups. In the project’s final year of implementation, USAID supported AVANSE in collaborating with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to capture some of the lessons for future agricultural programming in Haiti.

What is PEA?

Donors started adopting PEA in the 1990s to unpack power dynamics around resource use and better understand the role political will can have in enabling or undermining reforms. In Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) through applied PEA, USAID defines PEA as “an analytical approach to help understand the underlying reasons why things work the way they do and identify the incentives and constraints impacting the behavior of actors in a relevant system. By helping identify these influences—political, economic, social and cultural—PEA supports a more politically informed approach to working, known as ‘thinking and working politically’.”

Reducing Farmers’ Perception of Risks

In Northern Haiti, as elsewhere, a main factor affecting farmers’ decisions on whether to invest in their smallholdings and change their approach is their perception of the risks involved. The AVANSE PEA surfaced at least three concrete examples where beneficial reforms were stymied by the farmers’ perception of risk, highlighting the need for broader interventions in the agricultural system to address those perceptions and provide an environment more conducive to farmer investment and the adoption of new technologies.


One of the main constraints facing farmers in the North is the lack of access to water due to insufficient irrigation and recurring droughts. In addition to rehabilitating irrigation systems in the North, AVANSE set up a program with one of the main irrigation suppliers to provide water pumps, training on how to use them, and spare parts for maintenance and repair—with the objective of developing a sustainable local supply chain.

Farmers initially responded positively to this program, investing in irrigation pumps at a discounted price. But the drought in 2018 was so severe that some producers abandoned irrigating their fields because they considered that a devastating impact on crops was inevitable—despite the availability of the right technology to cope with this shock. Farmers’ risk aversion, informed by a lifetime’s experience, plays an important role in explaining their decision to irrigate or not. Lacking experience in irrigation, they feared that increased production costs would not be covered by a commensurate increase in market prices.

In this context, and considering Haiti’s chronic exposure to external shocks and stresses, it is incumbent on program designers to look at the wider system and ensure that agricultural insurance or other mechanisms are in place to reduce risk (or the perception of risk) if we really want to promote the widespread adoption of beneficial new technologies.

Soil Testing

A number of other agricultural services could benefit farmers and reduce their exposure to shocks. Facilitating smallholders’ access to soil testing and educating them on soil monitoring techniques, for example, can help them combat erosion and better deal with droughts. AVANSE worked with the University of Limonade and Auburn University in the United States to set up a laboratory to address this issue and propose these services to farmers. But the PEA found that such efforts may be hindered by weak cadaster laws and the status of a farmer’s land ownership. Farmers who rent land are less likely to spend money on improving the long-term productivity of the soil because their claim to the plot is tenuous and predicated on their rental agreement with the landowner.

Strengthening Haiti’s cadaster system, the study suggests—and, more specifically, ensuring that long-term leases are enforceable—could help incentivize farmers to pay for key agricultural services and make productive investments in their fields.

Instability and Access to Markets

Political instability can prevent producers or intermediaries from physically accessing their markets and reduce the number of buyers. If farmers find themselves unable to access markets during a political crisis, as was the case recently in the North, they will simply lose their income. In chronically unstable Haiti, farmers tend not to trust the market as a whole and have the perception that investing in their agricultural production—above a certain threshold—is too risky. Incorporating these considerations into market agreements with buyers and/or designing contingency plans for these situations can help alleviate these constraints.

PEA, Adaptive Management, and Resilience

As AVANSE shows, understanding farmers’ perception of risks is at least as important as identifying the right technical solution to their problems. PEAs are a good way of identifying these perceptions, surfacing the underlying causes of behaviors, and pinpointing factors that may require a systemic approach. Indeed, USAID increasingly encourages the use of “everyday PEAs.” More than a one off-study, the everyday PEA is a mindset or an ongoing approach premised on adaptive management and a culture of continuous learning, enabling a project to adapt its interventions to changing circumstances, including shocks and stresses.

The PEA findings show the importance of focusing not just on building the adaptive and absorptive capacity of farmers to cope with shocks and stresses, but also on consolidating the capacity of the system itself to be resilient. By intervening in interconnected systems such as finance (insurance and saving) or land, future agricultural projects will have a better chance of reducing farmers’ perception of risks and encouraging their investment in long-term solutions. But this shift will require a shift from political analysis to political action—in close coordination with government and donors—and that in turn will require a significant demonstration of political will.