World Bank indicators rig the field against farmers’ rights

Nov 20, 2014

‘You don’t understand!’ was World Bank’s Grahame Dixie’s rebuttal of the accusation that the Bank bears heavy responsibility in the grabbing of land and natural resources by corporations in the developing world. Having heard first-hand testimonies on the tragedy of land grabbing and related human rights violations in Africa, Mr. Dixie insisted that his institution was against land grabs but nevertheless the development of agribusiness in Africa was a necessity to feed a growing population, particularly in urban areas.


This discussion took place on October 10, 2014 at the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. during an event organized by the Oakland Institute on the impact of the Bank’s business indicators. The panelists from Kenya, Ethiopia and Mali pointed out the role of the institution in shaping policies and programs that lead to displacement and dispossession, destruction of lives and livelihoods, denial of basic human rights and repression for those who oppose the theft of their land by agribusinesses.


Grahame Dixie is leading the development of the Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) project at the World Bank. The BBA was initiated in 2013 at the demand of the G8 to develop “a Doing Business in Agriculture index.” It aims to “leverage policy reforms which enable the emergence of a stronger commercial agriculture sector.” The BBA will specifically focus on evaluating countries’ agricultural sector and determining how suitable it is for agribusinesses. With funding from the World Bank, the Gates Foundation, the UK, US, Dutch, and Danish governments, pilot studies have already taken place in 10 countries, and the Bank now plans to expand the project to some 30 countries in 2015.


The BBA is directly inspired from the Doing Business ranking, which the World Bank has produced since 2003 to measure the ease of doing business for private investors. As exposed in a 2014 report by the Oakland Institute, the Doing Business rewards lowering social and environmental safeguards to facilitate foreign investments, thereby allowing the exploitation of natural resources and human capital by foreign corporations and local elites.


Many countries that have implemented Doing Business reforms under the Bank’s guidance have become targets of land grabbing in the name of investment and economic growth. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, Laos, Democratic Republic of Congo, Philippines or Cambodia, business-friendly reforms have established a regulatory environment that has facilitated the seizing of natural resources and millions of hectares of land from local communities. The title of the Oakland Institute report, Willfull Blindness, says it all on how the World Bank, overlooks the devastating impact of its Doing Business rankings on the rural poor, while pushing its reform agenda further with the BBA.


The creation of these indicators to “guide policy making” is part of the Bank’s strategy to blur the public debate on economic and agricultural policies adapted to nations’ needs and contexts. Blind to the trend of land grabbing that dispossesses local communities in developing countries, the BBA project will push governments around the world to conduct private-titling reforms, which don’t ensure sustainable access to farmland for family farmers but rather allow for investors’ to take over the land. The BBA will also promote the opening of domestic markets to the import of commercial seeds and fertilizers. The World Bank’s approach, which it claims supports smallholders, therefore puts the future of farmers and food security of countries in the hands of oligopolistic input markets, where the three biggest seed companies—Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta—control more than 50 per cent of the world’s production.


The multi-continental campaign Our Land Our Business was launched in 2014 to call the Bank to abandon both indicators, the Doing Business and the Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture. Some 260 civil society organizations from around the world, including trade unions, NGOs, farmer and consumer organizations have joined forces to hold the World Bank accountable for its role in the rampant theft of land and resources from some of the world’s poorest people–farmers, pastoralists, and indigenous communities, many of whom are essential food producers for the entire planet.


The need to ‘feed the 9 billion’ heard so many times since 2008, has been an easy catch up phrase to justify the rush of corporations and investment funds to grab more resources from the poorest countries, perpetuating and renewing an exploitation model that has not stopped since independences.


This growing support to agribusinesses practicing large-scale, intensive agriculture increases pressure on the land and natural resources that farmers need to support their livelihoods. The World Bank officials seem to not recognize that family farmers produce 70 per cent of the food consumed worldwide and provide jobs to millions of rural people while preserving the environment. Therefore, farmers—not big agribusinesses—are the primary investors in agriculture and should be supported instead of being marginalized and dispossessed.


Frederic Mousseau is Policy Director at Oakland Institute.