Unease over Bank approach to global food crisis

13 June 2011

NGO criticism of the World Bank’s market-based approach to the global food crisis, particularly with regard to foreign agricultural investment, increased in recent months, while the Bank reiterated its existing position in April meetings.

At its Annual Conference on Land & Poverty in April, the Bank expressed sustained support for the controversial large-scale agricultural investment principles (RAI principles) that it drafted jointly with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and UN Conference on Trade and Development in April 2010 (see Update 71). The RAI principles are not legally binding, and the Bank has stated that “ultimately, governments in recipient countries are responsible for securing property rights.” However, a paper on agricultural investment treaties published in April by the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Foreign investment into agriculture: Investment treaties and the ability of governments to balance rights and obligations between foreign investors and local communities, concluded that “in cases where domestic laws and regulations in the host state are weak or vague, local communities and land users are left with little or no legal protection for their land, water, food and work.”

NGOs continue to urge the Bank to adopt policies that defend the property rights of vulnerable, indigenous, and landless populations. Just prior to the Bank’s conference, a coalition of northern and southern civil society organisations including GRAIN and La Via Campesina released a letter calling for so-called ‘land grabs’ to be outlawed. Referencing a 2010 Bank report on agricultural investment, Rising interest in global farmland, the letter stated that “the Bank could not find any convincing examples of ‘wins’ for poor communities or countries, only a long list of losses”.  The letter criticised the Bank’s RAI principles, stating that facilitating the “takeover of rural people’s farmlands is completely unacceptable no matter which guidelines are followed.” A petition drafted in February at the World Social Forum that makes similar appeals to national governments and the international financial institutions (IFIs) will be presented to the G20 agriculture ministers when they convene in June.

A report released in April by US-based NGO Gender Action, Gender, IFIs, and the global food crisis, accused the IFIs of increasing developing countries’ vulnerability to fluctuations in global food prices by imposing market-based reforms on agricultural sectors, particularly privatisation and trade liberalisation. The report stated that “by removing safeguards needed to protect local production, IFI-imposed deregulation crushes local markets and destroys the livelihoods of poor farmers.” Meanwhile, a report published by international NGO Oxfam in June, Growing a better future, called for international reform to the global food system. The report called on the Bank to provide balance of payments support and “ensure a fast and fair response in the event of crises”, but did not specify further what role the Bank should take.