The blog of the Urban Institute
November 17, 2020

Lessons from Agricultural Policy Implementation in Africa Show How to Shift from Intent to Action

Governments across the globe spend considerable time and effort developing policy solutions to advance public priorities. Yet there is often a significant gap (PDF) between a policy’s goals and intent and what actually happens on the ground.

This discrepancy highlights the critical and near-universal challenge of policy implementation. Implementation barriers can preclude policies from achieving their desired results, leaving critical problems unsolved regardless of the effort put toward addressing them.

Often considered a key missing link in the policy process, effective implementation can be difficult to define and plan for, in part because policies face a wide range of barriers, including gaps in financial and human resources, difficulty coordinating across implementing agencies, and interference or opposition (PDF) from powerful interest groups. Moreover, frontline implementers (PDF) may reinterpret policies and exercise discretion in ways that deviate from original policy designs.

What can be done to improve implementation of public policies?

In our recently released framework, we explored this question in the context of the implementation of agricultural policies in African countries, where governments and many donors have supported data use to identify and prioritize policies (PDF) that advance inclusive agricultural transformation (PDF).

These efforts, while important, have proven incomplete because of implementation challenges. These challenges include fragmented governance that leads to inconsistent implementation of policies conceived at the national level; lack of capacity in key agencies to carry out key operational steps, like targeting fertilizer subsidies to communities that need them the most; and unrealistic and overly optimistic strategies, like most National Agriculture Investment Plans (PDF). Moreover, poorly coordinated (PDF) donor assistance in the agriculture sector can lead to incoherent implementation (PDF). Though we see these trends broadly, we also acknowledge that Africa is not a monolith, and each country has multifaceted social, cultural, and political contexts that shape how implementation unfolds.     

The experience of many countries in Africa shows that identifying strong agricultural policies is not enough to drive transformation. Instead, governments and their development partners must carefully consider the “implementability” of specific policies, or the degree to which a policy can be successfully carried out.

Focusing on how implementable a policy might be helps identify likely barriers and organize action to mitigate or manage those barriers. A policy’s implementability is not immutable; external conditions can change, and policy champions can take deliberate steps to increase a policy’s chances of success.   

Design choices and decisions made during both before implementation planning and during actual implementation influence implementability, highlighting the importance of considering implementation at different points in the policy process.

Our framework can help donors facilitate more effective government-led implementation of agricultural policies in Africa. Building on insights from two dozen expert interviews and a review of 120 studies, we identified five domains that matter for policy implementation. One level down, we identify several factors within each domain (15 in total) that represent barriers to implementation. It is important for donors, governments, and other partners to carefully consider each of their relevance for a given policy.

Five domains that matter for effective policy implementation


The good news is that, within any of these domains, donors have a range of tools to support and strengthen government-led implementation efforts. Such donor actions can include assessing and strengthening government capacities to deliver, facilitating the use of data and evidence for policy design and implementation, convening key policy actors (PDF) to improve collaboration, and supporting the formation of high-performing implementing units

Looking ahead

Policymakers, donors, and other stakeholders know implementing policies is often difficult (PDF). This is true not just in African countries and not just within the agriculture sector.

But beyond the illustrative menu of steps we present in the framework, an underlying message of our work is that donors should not disengage after supporting the passage of major policy reforms. Rather, they should recognize their important roles in supporting the transition from policy formulation to implementation.     

Getting implementation right is essential to ensure agricultural policies in Africa truly support inclusive agricultural transformations and contribute to countries’ development goals.  

(David Garrity/EyeEm/Getty Images)


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.