This paper argues that there are fundamental characteristics of the agriculture sector which make developing and implementing a sector wide approach (SWAp) more difficult than in more homogenous sectors. The key difference is that the sector is usually dominated by private sector producers and represents a significant share of national output and employment. The direct role of the state may be significant, but is relatively smaller than in for example health or education, and has been further shrinking as market based reforms have been implemented. Moreover, there is no clear consensus within or between governments and donors on what the state role in the sector should be.
The genuine policy issues on which people reasonably disagree may be overlaid with more self-interested considerations, with some ministries of agriculture (and possibly some donor staff with an agricultural sector allegiance) more inclined to preserve agriculture sector budgets and staffing, while finance ministries and agency macro economists are equally keen to find cuts. Unlike other SWAp sectors, many of the most important government actions which influence the sector are concerned with policy rather than service delivery, and require the co-operation of several ministries, with agriculture not always in the lead. The large number of potentially warring stakeholder factions makes forging a consensus particularly difficult, and may explain why governments have found it difficult to tackle the major agricultural sector reform issues.