Bank timid steps on land reform

26 May 2003

The World Bank advocates a ‘market-assisted’ approach to land reform that critics say fails to secure people’s rights to land and food. It now seems that the Bank is partly acknowledging some past mistakes. Its Land Policy department is preparing a Policy Research Report, which however “does not bind the operations of the World Bank”, unlike Policy Papers.

Some NGOs have welcomed the paper’s more nuanced approach on a number of aspects of land reform, including the need for expropriation under certain conditions. How these timid steps will translate into the Bank’s operations is far from clear, though. Similarly, while the Bank concedes the failure of market-based programmes it backed in countries such as Colombia and South Africa, it deflects responsibility and avoids self-critical analysis. Despite acknowledging a role for the state in helping the poor to access land, the Bank is still adopting an approach favouring markets and “strongly advocates the removal of all obstacles in their way”, says Oxfam’s Robin Palmer. Via Campesina added that the paper fails to consider existing international norms like the International Pact of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, due to the Bank’s failure to adopt an explicit position on human rights.