Concerns e-voiced: WDR on ‘agriculture for development’ in consultation process

23 April 2007 | Review

The World Bank released a first draft of its latest World Development Report on ‘agriculture for development’ on 9 April.

On 25 and 26 January the Bank held a civil society consultation on the WDR in Toronto, Canada. This was a chance for representatives to identify key components missing from a draft outline of the WDR. Upon release of the WDR’s first draft, a subsequent e-consultation process involving academics, national and sub-national government officials, small producer organisations, business sector and civil society groups was coordinated by Rimisp—Latin American Center for Rural Development—and aimed to identify any key issues missing from the report.

Initial consultation

The civil society consultation held in Toronto in January highlighted a number of “cross-cutting” issues for inclusion in the coming WDR. A full report is available here. The inclusion of the following was deemed critical:

  • a strategy for implementing this report’s recommendations, detailing reasons why the implementation of past recommendations had failed;
  • clarity on the Bank’s “underlying assumptions”, particularly to justify the categorisation of developing countries’ agricultural development processes;
  • an overdue focus on marginalised groups, their institutional limitations and how to reach equitable access to social services and natural resources, particularly for women;
  • the importance of sound national institutional frameworks;
  • not to promote a “best use” for land and water or any market reform that may work against the interests of the poor;
  • not to neglect the importance of subsistence agriculture whilst promoting broader means of achieving food security;
  • details of how an ‘agriculture for development’ strategy will handle climate change, population increase, HIV/AIDS, natural disaster, resource degradation, institutional weakness and political stability;
  • to ensure the equitable and effective application of technological innovation, recognising private sector limitations in developing countries, calling for increased global efforts to find public good solutions to development issues; and
  • a recognition that failure to develop the “implementation capacity” throughout local, district, provincial and national strata is tantamount to the “failure of the entire agenda being proposed by the WDR”.

Bank’s first attempt

The WDR’s three-part structure addresses the following questions: ‘why use agriculture for development’, ‘how to use agriculture for development’ and ‘how to formulate and implement tailored agriculture-for-development agendas?’ It starts by recognising agriculture as a “highly effective source of growth” and driver toward poverty reduction. Further recognition of the abuse of natural resources from current agricultural techniques signals the Bank’s desire for agricultural reform. The shape of such reform, however, will determine whether this report becomes a credible manual for effective policy change or a manifesto for what Elisa Van Waeyenberge of SOAS has termed the Bank’s “core set of neo-liberal policies”, only in an agricultural context.

Indeed, it is not yet clear whether the report’s promotion of a “dynamic market-driven ‘new agriculture’ led by high value activities” will satisfy CSO calls for market reform not to work against the interests of the poor. The report’s position that “well functioning land markets are needed to transfer land to the most productive users” is supported only by a Chinese example handpicked from a highly complex story.

The importance of price incentives is high on the agenda. The agricultural subsidies of many rich countries are cited as a significant hindrance to developing world agricultural competitiveness and the report advocates a reduction in these, particularly “for products that matter most to developing countries, such as cotton and sugar”. The report maintains that without a similar reduction of southern agricultural protectionism, “additional costs on south-south trade” will remain. Little justification is given for this, however.

On how agricultural development can deal with the complex and diverse nature of poverty, the report opens positively: “agriculture-for-development agendas must be tailored to the context.” However, ironically under the heading ‘heterogeneity in the world of agriculture’ the report proceeds to classify “agriculture’s three worlds”: agriculture-based, transforming, and urbanised. The Bank’s research is often typified by similarly rigid categorisations and its arguments, for example that “GDP growth originating in agriculture has more impact on income than growth originating in non-agriculture”, often rely upon it. Such an approach undermines the promising opening assertion, casting doubt over the Bank’s understanding of the complex nature of poverty.

Raising e-concerns

Upon release of the report’s first draft, the Bank asked Rimisp to coordinate a subsequent electronic consultation process, which took place between 9 to 20 April. Full details can be found here.

Participants praised the report’s recognition of the multi-functionality of agriculture but suggested ‘way of life’, rather than ‘economic activity’, as the foremost function. Three additional, and equally important, functions were proposed: national food security, social stability, and culture and identity. However, there was no mention of the report’s neglect of the diversities of poverty, exacerbated by participants’ acceptance of the Bank’s categorisation of “agriculture’s three worlds”.

The need to clearly distinguish between agriculture for and agriculture in development was emphasised. That is, participants felt the report needed to clarify the Bank’s position on the circumstances under which people, crops and technologies were to respectively propel development through agriculture.

Perhaps the most common criticism of the report was that it failed to account for the social and environmental repercussions of its heavy promotion of industrialising agriculture. The report avoided sufficient analysis and explanation of the replacement of local labour with industrial inputs and improving water harvesting and use efficiency. One participant importantly asked if all the report’s recommendations would be “climate proof”.

Similarly to the proposals from the Toronto consultations, concerns were raised about the neglect of staple food crops and subsistence agriculture, overshadowed in the report by the championing of “the supermarket revolution”. One participant clearly declared the report’s focus should still be on how to produce, not what to produce.

The Bank’s dogmatic promotion of trade liberalisation is picked up on and it is suggested the report should give more attention to examples of liberalisation hurting the poor. However, the report’s advocacy for multi-sectoral investment in rural areas was praised.

Review and assessment of the capabilities and preparedness of southern ministries of agriculture and private sectors is deemed a crucial first step toward implementation of WDR recommendations. The report mentions little about local worker/farm organisations and trade unions; surely crucial views to consider. Many participants thought the report should clarify the Bank’s role in agriculture for development, both as a source of funding and as a ‘knowledge bank’.

Overall, participants believed that “the ultimate success of the WDR will be judged on the clarity of its main messages”. That the report is almost silent on the ubiquitous effects of HIV/AIDS and the role of young people in agriculture-the focus of the 2007 WDR-reiterates the importance of what messages are put forward, as well as their clarity.

A final synthesis report of the recent e-consultations is due on 1 May. Co-directors of the WDR, Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry, have monitored all recent contributions. They have pledged to expand the report in the following areas which they believe “will undoubtedly strengthen the final published WDR”:

  • clarification and prioritisation of policy recommendations;
  • the addition of a new pillar of agriculture-for-development accounting for macroeconomic context and investment climate;
  • the importance of smallholder agriculture;
  • the environmental trade-offs from technological advancement in agriculture, with particular emphasis on water productivity, biodiversity conservation and agro-ecological approaches;
  • rural households’ access to finance;
  • how trade versus domestic production lead to food security;
  • managing trade liberalisation in the interests of smallholders; and
  • the report will “recognise donor failures along with market and government failures”.

The final version of the WDR will be released on 17 October, world food day. Based on the WDR team’s response to the Toronto recommendations, however, it remains to be seen whether or not the recent e-concerns will be addressed.

The topic of next year’s WDR—geography of development—has recently emerged from the Bank’s spring meetings. More details on this will be available here as they become available.