World Bank's Conference on Land & Poverty is a Cruel Farce
20th March 2015
On Monday the World Bank's Conference on Land and Poverty begins in the US. But farmer organizations, indigenous groups, trade unions and others denounce the whole exercise as a sham that, in tandem with other Bank initiatives, is all about accelerating corporate land grabs and robbing the poor that the Bank was founded to assist.
Every spring for the last 15 years, the World Bank has organized the 'Conference on Land and Poverty', which brings together corporations, governments and civil society groups.
This year the official theme is "Linking Land Tenure and Use for Shared Prosperity" and the overall aim, the Bank claims, is to discuss how to "improve land governance."
But the closest the Bank comes to acknowledging the growing trend of land grabs at the expense of the rural poor is to blandly observe that
"while land tenure affects the distribution of assets between men and women, generations, and social groups, patterns of land use will have far-reaching implications for welfare and other socioeconomic outcomes at household, community, or landscape level."
And rather than tackle the systemic issues that drive land grabs and landlessness, the Bank's focus in the conference is set firmly on technical details:
"Although they are by no means a silver bullet, recent innovations in geospatial technologies provide exciting opportunities to document and analyze determinants, as well as impacts of land use change that are of great relevance for policy, projects, and research in this area."
Helping the poor? Or robbing the poor to boost corporate wealth?
"The big question is whose interests the World Bank really serves", said Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute. "While they spend considerable time and money painting themselves as champions of the poor, the Bank has a battery of practices and policies that suggest a very different truth."
Mittal points to the hypocrisy of the Bank's claims to be interested in "securing farmers' access to land" by highlighting that around the world, local communities face forced evictions and human rights abuses linked to Bank-financed projects as documented in recent years in Uganda, Honduras, and Cambodia.
Just last year, the Bank created a $350 million facility to cover the risks of investments made by the Silverlands Fund, a private equity fund that has been accused of financing land grabs - thereby 'de-risking' its operations.
"If you look behind many of the recent land deals, you will find World Bank policies that enable investors to come in with projects that promise benefits to communities but don't follow through", said Mittal.
"We can keep going after each corporation and investment group but it would be more effective if the Bank stopped paving the way for what has become the systematic exploitation of land and people."
Alnoor Ladha of The Rules explained why she would be boycotting the conference: "We refuse to legitimize the World Bank and their corporate overlords by being a part of these meetings.
"The conference is simply a distraction and decoy to feign dialogue with civil society. The Bank promotes a Western model of private ownership of local resources with blind faith in the twisted logic of trickle down wealth and dehumanized markets."
The conference takes place in Washington DC next week from 23rd to 27th March - and hundreds of civil society organizations are already denouncing the World Bank's role in global land grabs and its "deceitful leadership on land issues."
"We can keep going after each corporation and investment group but it would be more effective if the Bank stopped paving the way for what has become the systematic exploitation of land and people.
World Bank 'reforms' and 'improvements'
Campaigners including the Our Land Our Business group are also on the attack against the World Bank's influential 'Doing Business' reports and accompanying advisory services, which are used to drive policy "reforms" and "improvements" that are attractive to investors. According to the Bank,
"Each economy from the 189 economies measured is evaluated based on how close their business regulations are to the best global practices. A higher score indicates a more efficient business environment and stronger legal institutions."
But through its ostensibly neutral measure of "best global practicies", the Bank uses its financial and political might to force countries to adopt "business-friendly" legal and policy changes which make it as easy as possible for agribusiness corporations to get access to developing countries' land and natural resources. In 2014 the Bank claimed to have inspired over a quarter of the 2,100 "reforms" registered since its creation.
Sustained access to land is a prerequisite to ensure livelihood support for family farmers and pastoralists, who currently produce up to 80% of the food and farm 80% of the land in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, says Ladha:
"Access to land is threatened by the Bank's vision of land as a market commodity and by its agency to enable corporations' exploitation of natural resources. It is time for a shift in power away from so-called 'development' bankers back to the world's majority."
US refuses to step in for the poor and landless
Though it largely controls the World Bank, the US Government refuses to take action on its programs that have adverse consequences on human rights, land rights, and social and environmental standards.
Last November, 2014, 11 US-based organizations wrote to the US Alternate Executive Director of the World Bank, Sara Aviel, urging her to take action in order to phase out the Bank's Doing Business and Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (now called Enabling the Business of Agriculture) projects.
The letter was sent on behalf of Our Land Our Business, a multicontinental campaign endorsed by 260 civil society organizations, trade unions, and farmers groups from around the world, which is demanding the end of these two World Bank projects.
"The US is a key supporter of the Doing Business ranking" said Mittal, "and has chosen to ignore the devastating impact of this race to the bottom it has set in motion to ensure corporate profits ... We are joined by the world's poorest and the most marginalized in demanding that this stops NOW."
'Ease of doing business' = encouraging corporate take-over
The Oakland Institute's in-depth study of 14 countries showed that, in order to improve the "ease of doing business", countries have adopted 'reforms' which lower labor and environmental standards, taxation of corporations, diminish businesses' contribution to social security, and allow cheap and easy transfers of land to attract investors.
In the Doing Business 2015, six of the ten countries classified as best performers had conducted reforms to ease land transfers. The race to deregulate driven by the World Bank's business indicators creates a structural framework that facilitates land and resource grabbing and threatens millions of livelihoods of communities and smallholder famers.
And Aldo Caliari, Director of Rethinking Bretton Woods Project at Center of Concern, denounces the Bank's launch of a new index aimed at agricultural investments, whose first edition presents "initial data on the agribusiness sector enabling environment" in 10 countries - Ethiopia, Guatemala, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, the Philippines, Rwanda, Spain, Uganda, and Ukraine.
"Not only does the Bank ignore critics of 'Doing Business', but it doubles down on this initiative by creating the new 'Enabling the Business of Agriculture', directly inspired from the first index", says Caliari.
"This is a slap in the face of the civil society organizations and will further undermine citizens' ability to determine the policies and regulations they want their governments to adopt."
Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank, added: "Applied to agriculture, such tools can create competition between developing countries to facilitate the importation of patented seeds and expensive artificial fertilizers.
"The new 'Enabling the Business of Agriculture' will foster dependence of smallholders on costly and environmentally destructive agricultural inputs, which are largely produced by Northern agribusinesses, not by local communities."
And for all the World Bank's claims that it "opposes speculative land investments or acquisitions that take advantage of weak institutions in developing countries or disregard principles of responsible agricultural investment", that's exactly what it is promoting.
According to Oakland Institute, "Business rankings undermine countries' sovereignty and threaten communities' livelihoods, and this is why the US should take action, to make sure the Bank's primary objective to eliminate poverty is upheld, while respecting human rights and economic, cultural and social rights."
Read the letter to the US Alternate Executive Director of the World Bank.
Learn more about the Our Land Our Business campaign.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.