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Sacrificial pawns


Farm in Uganda

Farm in Uganda

It is a good thing that the World Bank finally lets rural issues top the international development agenda again. Nevertheless, the Washington-based bankers still have a lot to learn. This year’s World Development Report focuses entirely on the conventional approaches of liberalisation, modernisation and growth. [ By Rudolf Buntzel ]

The current World Development Report claims to offer a formula to fight rural poverty and hunger, but it really does little more than advocate agricultural growth à la World Bank. It lacks a comprehensive analysis of the target group – the rural poor – and their needs. Therefore, the Bank’s recommendations can be summed up into the socially inconsiderate message of “get modern, or get out”. This is what the Bank is telling billions of smallholder farmers and their families.

Farmers as businessmen – that is the World Bank’s idea of promoting growth and a “new agriculture”. The report emphasises matters such as integration into the world market, production in value added chains, involvement in contract farming with new actors, orders and products (for example supermarket chains), well-organised grower groups, quality and safety standards and biofuels.

The Report does not, however, provide any information on how masses of impoverished farmers and farmhands might find work and income through such market integration. Nor does it say how many people would lose their livelihoods in this course of modernisation. The authors seem to believe it will do to come up with some good ideas, pump capital and biotechnology into rural areas, count on regional integration, preach global market integration and modernisation to traditional farmers – and then simply rely on liberalised market forces.

To confuse growth with poverty reduction is a mistake World Bank economists continue to make. In most developing countries, prosperity never trickled down to the poor. Why should that be any different in future? In its recommendations, the Word Bank disregards issues like power, the self-interest of corrupt elites, rent-seeking capitalism and the pillaging activity of foreign investors.

The call for “good governance” alone is of little help. The Bank assumes that all involved have good intentions, so that all that needs to be done is to set market signals correctly. According to this naïve belief, everyone will then benefit from everyone else.
The World Development Report more or less suggests that farmers who practise subsistence farming with simple techniques do so by chance or because they know nothing else. In truth, markets, political environments, lack of education, health problems and unfair rights to land leave them no better option.

Though the Report preaches radical modernisation, it is not based on free-market radicalism. It does argue that governments should set incentives correctly, including by the use of subsidies, provided that they put farmers on track for modernisation. Government grants to purchase synthetic fertilisers, for example, are legitimate in the eyes of the World Bank, in order to contribute to the new green revolution, which is supposed to be crucial for the “new agriculture” even in Africa. Biotechnology is in vogue. However, the original green revolution did not simply bypass Africa. It simply failed there thirty years ago. The World Bank Report only superficially considers the reasons for that course of events.

It must be admitted that the Report discusses the wide range of ecological approaches to boosting incomes, which are central for Africa, in particular in areas with difficult soils. The World Bank, however, does not see such methods as any true alternative. The World Development Report argues that it takes so much knowledge and advice to do eco-farming, that its practice only makes sense for marginal farmers and areas.

In more favourable agricultural lands, the World Bank proposes a package of modern intensive farming, supported by expanded national agricultural research. A strategy for an integrated rural development, however, would have to take into account social aspects, market relations, different agricultural methods and environmental problems and political interests. Such a concept would be a completely different matter.