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Undemocratic and Unsustainable, the World Bank’s Vision for Agricultural Development Harms the Poorest

October 3, 2016
By: Alice Martin-Prével

As the World Bank’s Annual Meetings get underway in Washington, DC, a crucial theme is noticeably missing from its seminar series: agriculture.

Protestors in Delhi ask the World Bank to end Doing Business rankings, 2014. © Our Land Our Business / The Rules
Protestors in Delhi ask the World Bank to end Doing Business rankings, 2014. © Our Land Our Business / The Rules

Does this imply that the Bank has become less involved in agricultural financing? The answer is no. The World Bank is by far the main donor of agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors in the developing countries, surpassing the United States and other G7 nations. If agriculture is not on the agenda, does it mean that the agricultural strategy of the major donor is not up for debate or transparent engagement with the public?

This assessment comes from Our Land Our Business, a multi-continental campaign of over 280 farmers groups, NGOs, unions, and indigenous organizations, which is challenging the Bank’s top-down imposition of a pro-corporate approach to agriculture through its business indicators. The Bank’s Doing Business and the Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) seek to pry open developing countries’ agricultural sectors to enable large-scale land acquisitions and increase dependence on industrial inputs (seeds, fertilizers).

The World Bank’s Business Indicators: Enabling Land Grabs and Dependence on Industrial Inputs

The EBA is the Bank’s most recent project, launched in 2013. It was not requested by the farmers or any developing country, but by the G8 to support its much maligned New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. It dictates so-called “good regulatory practices” to “facilitate doing business in agriculture” – including privatizing seed systems and facilitating importation of chemical fertilizers – and scores countries on how well they apply and implement these prescriptions.

Although the EBA technically benchmarks countries from all continents and income levels, its prescriptive role towards governments is largely directed to the developing world. For instance, the World Bank plans to reach out to African governments to foster the EBA’s acceptance “as a tool to improve agricultural policy development” and to train advisors of New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in use of the index.

This bypassing of democratic processes and negotiation behind closed doors with governments is all too typical of the World Bank. In the 1980s, the Bank conditioned its aid to the forced liberalization of national economies through its Structural Adjustments Programs (SAPs). This devastated the livelihoods of millions, especially small-scale farmers who were deeply impacted by the promotion of export crops, dismantlement of public institutions, and market liberalization.

Renewed Push for Neoliberal Reforms in Agriculture

The SAPs triggered a wave of global resistance leading to their official withdrawal in 2002. The Bank now disguises conditionality in business surveys, benchmarking tools, and advisory services that continue to promote a same agenda of neoliberal reforms. The EBA is modeled after the Doing Business index, which gained traction since its creation in 20021 by guiding investment decisions of private companies and donor agencies – the G8’s New Alliance notably uses the Doing Business scores to measure countries’ success in reforming their agricultural sector.

The agricultural reforms promoted by the Bank’s business indicators harm farmers by promoting the use of expensive and fossil-fuel based inputs and pushing for the absorption of smallholders in agricultural value-chains where they are subjected to market competition, price volatility, and unsustainable indebtedness. The Bank ignores the recommendations of legions of international experts as well as UN agencies, who emphasize the need to support small-scale farmers and agroecological, low-input agriculture to ensure sustainable and inclusive agricultural development.

It is time for the Bank to listen to the concerns of people and civil society organizations around the world who are rejecting its strategy for agricultural growth and its hidden agenda to continue structural adjustments for the benefits of a few. The Bank must end the Doing Business and Enabling the Business of Agriculture projects as a first step to start upholding debate, transparency, and a bottom-up participation of rural communities in agriculture strategy decisions. Until it does that, the World Bank will remain an illegitimate actor in agricultural development.