WDR 2008 preview: a Bank draft for agricultural development?

26 August 2007 | Review

The World Bank recently released a near-final version of its 2008 World Development Report on ‘agriculture for development’, ahead of the official release on 19 October.

Having been through consultation processes with CSOs, academics, interest groups and southern NGOs, there is hope that this WDR will represent the interests of those consulted, particularly those for whom agriculture is a key aspect of their development. Given the importance of agriculture to southern development, there is also hope that this WDR will become a credible manual for effective policy change rather than what Elisa Van Waeyenberge of the UK’s School of Oriental and African Studies has termed the Bank’s “core set of neo-liberal policies”, only in an agricultural context.

A civil society consultation held in Toronto in January highlighted a number of “cross-cutting” issues for inclusion in the WDR. A full report is available here. Those consulted in Toronto called for: an increased focus on marginalised groups, equitable access to social services and natural resources; 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; and how the WDR’s strategy will handle other key issues such as climate change, population increase, HIV/AIDS, natural disaster and political stability.

The Bank responded with its first draft of the report on 9 April. The draft opened positively, recognising agriculture as a “highly effective source of growth” and catalyst for poverty reduction. Further recognition of the abuse of natural resources from current agricultural techniques signals the Bank’s desire for agricultural reform. The draft also identifies northern agricultural subsidies as a significant hindrance on southern agricultural development.

Such positive statements, however, were soon undermined by calls to reduce southern agricultural protectionism. Furthermore, it was not clear whether the report’s promotion of a “dynamic market-driven ‘new agriculture’ led by high value activities” would satisfy CSO calls for market reforms not to work against the interests of the poor. Whilst the draft appeared to consider the complexity of many key issues, it rigidly categorised “agriculture’s three worlds”: agriculture-based, transforming, and urbanised.

The Bank asked NGO RIMISP (Latin American Centre for Rural Development) to coordinate an electronic consultation 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. Other key concerns included: the report’s need to clarify the Bank’s position on the circumstances under which people, crops and technologies were to respectively propel development through agriculture; and, perhaps the most common criticism, that it failed to account for the social and environmental repercussions of its heavy promotion of industrialising agriculture. Co-directors of the WDR, Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry, monitored all contributions and 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 leads to food security;
  • managing trade liberalisation in the interests of smallholders; and
  • the report will “recognise donor failures along with market and government failures”.

As pledged, the recently released near-final version of the report does both clarify and prioritise the authors’ policy recommendations, as well as placing them in the wider context of broadening southern opportunities to escape poverty through agriculture. An increased focus on the environmental impact of agricultural development is also noteworthy, stressing sustainable practices and viewing agriculture as an environmental service provider. However, there remains a promotion of trade liberalisation in the north and south, supported by hypothesised figures of a free international marketplace. Similar weaknesses lie with the methodology used to support Bank arguments, such as the assertion that GDP growth originating in agriculture has a greater impact on income than growth originating in non-agriculture. The latest version of the report employs an excessively-general and thus unrealistic view of the sub-Saharan African macroeconomic climate, exacerbated by the continued crude categorisation of southern nations into one of only three possible worlds.

The final version of the WDR will be released on 19 October. Whilst the authors have obviously taken on board some of the post-consultation recommendations, there remain some fundamental concerns that may hinder its effectiveness. With World Food Day falling on 16 October, the GCAP ‘day of action’ on 17 October and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development due by the year’s end, such concerns are likely to be amplified upon the WDR’s release.