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The World Bank’s Land Conference: Pro-Poor Bluff to Serve Neo-Colonialism

March 20, 2017
By: Alice Martin-Prével

This March 20, 2017, the World Bank’s 18th Annual Land and Poverty Conference begins, featuring a session where Bank specialists will deliver their assessment on the “quality” of land regulations globally. In particular, the Bank’s staff will comment on the implementation and findings of the Doing Business (DB) and the Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA), two projects that rank countries’ regulatory environment, including land and property registration policies.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosts World Bank Group leaders for dialogue on role of business community in developing markets
U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosts World Bank Group leaders for dialogue on role of business community in developing markets. Credit: World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ranking Countries for Agribusiness

Both initiatives, the DB and EBA, are being challenged by the multi-continental Our Land Our Business campaign, which denounces the harmful impacts of these projects on land and agriculture worldwide. While the Bank’s DB and EBA promote reforms that facilitate property transfers and reduce investment costs for corporations, they erode the rights of communities whose livelihoods rely on the lands and natural resources coveted by wealthy investors.

The World Bank uses the DB scores to provide advisory services to developing countries on the reforms needed to become attractive to investors. This assists governments to set up “one-stop shop” investment agencies that award cheap land, water concessions, and tax breaks to investors. Focused on the business of agriculture, the EBA fiercely advocates for the creation of “liquid” land markets to enable “efficiency-enhancing” land transactions. In other words, the World Bank uses this index to promote a “structural transformation” of agriculture towards industrialized and mechanized farming, which is made possible by facilitating smallholders’ exit from the sector through land sales or leases.

This goal is strikingly similar to agricultural strategies promoted by the UK and US development agencies, which also happen to sponsor the Bank’s EBA project and Land Conference. Both the UK and US are among the primary countries acquiring land around the world. It is therefore not surprising that Western countries and their lackey, the World Bank, have established the facilitation of global land trading as a main “development” goal.

Land and Poverty Conference 2017: Business as Usual?

Although the Bank uses pro-poor and gender equality language, and introduces EBA benchmarks against evictions without fair compensation, its business indexes overall fail to uphold people’s free, prior, and informed consent as an essential condition for any land deal. The DB and EBA also ignore the functionality and legitimacy of customary land ownership systems, which in some countries govern over 90 percent of the land. Instead, the EBA states that communal governance structures are only adequate in areas with “lower levels of agricultural potential” (i.e. not as coveted by agribusiness investors), before a transition towards formal titling systems is operated “as and when the need arises” (i.e. when investments start encroaching in these areas).

There is a fundamental conflict between the preservation of viable livelihoods for smallholder farmers and indigenous communities and the Bank’s push for corporate investments and large-scale agriculture, which rely on intensive use of natural resources and land concentration in the hands of few large producers.

The Bank’s DB and EBA experts have failed to address this contradiction because it does not serve their own or their Western donors’ interests. The Conference on Land and Poverty, consequently, is just another occasion for a show of pro-poor hypocrisy, while the Bank continues to plot policies to benefit the rich.