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Handling the Weather: Insurance, Savings, and Credit in West Africa

Jul 27, 2015
Farmers in developing countries face severe uninsured production risks and consequently may largely benefit from the introduction of formal financial instruments that would help them to smooth consumption. To shed light on this issue, in a recent World Bank working paper, we consider three separate policy interventions and examine their impact on consumption, investment and welfare. Specifically, we studied stylized contracts for weather index-insurance, savings and credit accounts, based on the formal financial instruments available for the rural households living in Burkina Faso and Senegal. We started our analysis from benchmark scenarios and then progressively moved towards more realistic policy interventions that incorporate the different limitations that each financial product carries. Let's first set the stage of the study.Droughts, locust invasions, storms and floods caused by insufficient drainage infrastructure or dam system failures are among the most frequent natural hazards in West Africa. These calamities have significant livelihood consequences as indicated by the staggering number of food insecure people in 2012 (18.4 million, including about 1 million children under the age of 5), because of low and uneven rainfall coupled with attacks on crops by pests and locusts (UNICEF, 2012). These dramatic consequences are linked to the fact that when on-farm work constitutes the main source of income, fluctuations in agricultural income may have sizeable repercussions on consumption. In the absence of improved agricultural practices and formal financial products, farmers need to rely on a host of informal strategies to shield their consumption. Since the seminal work of Townsend 1994, research indicates that these informal risk-coping mechanisms, however, offer at best imperfect protection against risks, and these solutions tend to perform even worse in the case of wide-scale events such as droughts or floods. Besides, uninsured income risk has also indirect negative impact on consumption. Rare but severe weather shocks may induce farmers to under-invest in high-return, but also high-volatility projects, further depressing potential consumption. Can weather index-insurance, savings or credit accounts mitigate these negative welfare effects? Each of these financial products has the potential to improve farmers' welfare, yet none of them completely abstract from complications that may limit the extent of the gains achievable. For example, index insurance and insured credit may not be immune from basis risk, arising because of the imperfect correlation between the insurance payout and farmers losses; on the other hand, savings may be very expensive means to cope with large shocks, and rather ineffective against calamities that occur in quick succession. Which of these financial instruments is more welfare-enhancing? To answer this question, we set-up a dynamic stochastic optimization problem of consumption and investment and perform counterfactual analysis. A key feature of the model is that on-farm investment is subject to multiple sources of risk, both idiosyncratic and covariant in nature, and that a large part of this uncertainty is covariant. This allows us to correctly model the basis risk inherent in some of the financial innovations available. We numerically solve the optimization problem using calibrated parameters based on crop model as well as existing evidence in the literature focusing on Burkinabe and Senegalese farmers. We then show the impact on consumption, investment and welfare from the separate provision of three financial instruments: weather insurance, savings and credit. As anticipated, we start our analysis considering the effects from the provision of the "optimal" contracts (from the farmers' point of view) and then relax these assumptions and investigate the impact from providing more "realistic" contracts. The results for Burkina Faso and Senegal are strikingly similar. In both cases, the provision of weather insurance as well as credit leads to an increase in consumption and a decline in precautionary investment in riskless return-free assets. While qualitatively similar, these choices are quantitatively different as captured by the vast differences in the level of welfare gains that can be achieved. Irrespective of the wealth owned, weather insurance enables farmers to achieve larger welfare gains which are decreasing in wealth. Over time, farmers gain less and less from the provision of these financial instruments due to the fact that the initial increase in consumption is not compensated by a sufficient increase in on-farm production. As we move away from the benchmark scenarios it becomes clear however that the welfare gains from weather insurance are highly sensitive to its pricing and that offering a relatively small discount (fee), substantially increases (cut) the benefits achievable by farmers. The introduction of saving accounts on the other hand induces farmers to save more and eventually allows farmers to consume more. As a result the welfare gains are increasing both in wealth and over time. Richer farmers gain more as they can enjoy higher returns on larger endowments. The initial contraction in consumption combined with the increase in riskless investments leads to higher consumption in the future and consequently larger gains. In sum, the selection of the "optimal" financial instrument depends on the level of wealth of the households as well as the quality of contract offered. This study offers a simple framework to reflect on these issues and assess the quantitative welfare implications of the different instruments across level of wealth and over time. This blogpost is based on the paper
"Handling the weather: insurance, savings and credit in West Africa", prepared by Francesca de Nicola
from the
World Bank.

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