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Why do the World Bank's New Indicators, "Enabling the Business of Agriculture" Pose a Threat to African Agriculture?

January 19, 2017
Community Alliance for Global Justice

Simone Adler

AGRA Watch has long been concerned with the Gates Foundation’s funding for agri-business and pro-corporate agricultural policies in Africa. However, what was at first a simple model of philanthrocapitalism—the use of apparent philanthropy to expand globally-integrated capitalist markets—has now turned into a full-throated effort to coerce states into embracing pro-market reforms. The “Enabling the Business of Agriculture” indicators (EBAs) represent a step in this direction by measuring and monitoring the implementation of corporate regulatory regimes across the world.

The EBAs were developed by the World Bank in 2013 with approximately $4.5 million from the Gates Foundation and other national development agencies. As the 2016 World Bank report notes, these indicators were constructed to enable “policymakers to identify and analyze legal barriers for the business of agriculture and to quantify transaction costs of dealing with government regulations.” The EBAs rank countries across six areas of the agricultural supply chain based on how favorable the World Bank considers a country’s regulations are for agribusiness.

The indicators thus provide a guidebook for donor agencies to determine funding and the conditions for foreign aid and investment. Indeed, the EBAs are part of a larger web of foreign-driven aid initiatives and public-private partnerships that include the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the Gates Foundation, and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Each of the initiatives have worked aggressively to encourage pro-corporate reform of African agriculture. The EBAs were developed to further that goal, concealing the neocolonial effort to expropriate African agriculture under the guise of “smart regulation” and “good governance.” They largely ignore the impact to small-scale producers and workers (such as debt, dispossession of land, or displacement to urban areas), implicitly prioritizing commercialization over the effects on local communities.

The Power of the EBAs

Indicators are a technology of global governance that allow institutions, states, and organizations to measure, evaluate, and rank entities’ performance of particular actions or compliance with a specific set of norms. Because indicators are quantified measurements, they often appear neutral and value-free. However, they reflect particular theories about social relations and social change. As anthropologist Sally Merry argues in her book, The Seductions of Quantification, “indicators are part of a regime of power based on the collection and analysis of data and their representation. It is important to see who is creating the indicators, where these people come from, and what expertise they have. Rather than revealing the truth, indicators create it” (2016: 5). To understand the power of the EBAs, therefore, it is important to understand how they were constructed.

The World Bank describes the development of the EBAs as a response to the challenges of global hunger. Hence, the Bank justifies the EBAs as a way to eradicate hunger and achieve greater food security through the global market, a theory that rests on the assumption that the problem of hunger is the result of inadequate production. In its introduction the report explains, “growing food demands call for greater attention to strategies to develop the business of agriculture” (2016: xi). In approaching hunger from the perspective of food scarcity, the EBAs thus seek to legitimate a vision of agro-industrial production, commercialization, and privatization. However, this perspective on hunger as being merely the result of food scarcity overlooks the vast inequalities of distribution even when there is adequate food production.

La Via Campesina, the international movement of peasant farmers, and other social movements and activists have been in a protracted battle over this approach, which often dispossesses small-scale producers, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition. Indeed, the EBAs primarily measure agricultural production in places where small-scale producers make up a majority of food producers. For these farmers, commercialization means creating markets along the supply chain to displace the current public support and non-market practices, such as farmer-managed seed systems and low-input or agroecological farming. Encouraging these reforms thus means vertically integrating smallholders into global food markets. The result, as the Oakland Institute argues, “quickly generates a race to the bottom between the poorest countries that wish to appear more agribusiness-friendly in order to attract private investments.” Small-scale producers and workers have therefore advocated for solutions that strengthen local markets and their own capacities. Rather than asking what role the private sector should play or how African food security can be supported, the EBAs evade these debates, concealing a vast terrain of struggle behind seemingly-impartial tools of measurement.