Washington — The World Bank has rejected a call to suspend its involvement in large scale agricultural land acquisition following the release of a major report by the international aid agency Oxfam on the negative impact of international land speculation in developing countries.
"We share the concerns Oxfam raised in their report," the bank stated in an unusually lengthy public rebuttal to the Oxfam Report. "However, we disagree with Oxfam's call for a moratorium on World Bank Group...investments in land intensive large-scale agricultural enterprises, especially during a time of rapidly rising global food prices."
"A moratorium focused on the Bank Group targets precisely those stakeholders doing the most to improve practices - progressive governments, investors, and us. Taking such a step would do nothing to help reduce the instances of abusive practices and would likely deter responsible investors willing to apply our high standards," the rebuttal said.
Over the past year, aid agencies, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and development watchdogs have warned that international investors are increasingly engaging in massive and sometimes predatory land deals in the developing world, particularly in Africa. These acquisitions are partly to blame for rising food insecurity.
Food prices are once again nearing record highs. In late August, the World Bank warned that due to adverse weather in parts of Europe and the United States, the global cost of certain staple crops was approaching levels last seen in 2008.
Ironically, multinational companies interested in growing food crops to address this need have been doing much of the recent investing. According to Oxfam, however, two-thirds of the investments made between 2000 and 2010 were exclusively for export-oriented crops, while other lands are being used to meet the increasing international demand for biofuels.
"Already an area of land the size of London is being sold to foreign investors every six days in poor countries," Oxfam stated, noting that in Liberia, land deals have "swallowed up" 30 percent of the country over the past five years.
The report did not reject what good can potentially result from private investment but warned that food-price spikes from 2008 to 2009 led to the tripling of land deals, as "land was increasingly viewed as a profitable investment" even though it largely failed to benefit local communities.
Slow the speculation
"The world is facing an unbridled land rush that is exposing poor people to hunger, violence and the threat of a lifetime in poverty. The World Bank is in a unique position to stop this," Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam's executive director, said Thursday, noting that the bank both invests in land and advises developing countries.
Oxfam is calling on the World Bank to temporarily halt its investments in agricultural land to give it time to review the advice it offers developing countries, and to put in place stronger policies to slow or stop the speculation and "land-grabbing" projects in which it is said to be involved.
World Bank investment in agriculture has reportedly tripled in the past decade. Since 2008, however, local communities have also brought 21 formal complaints against bank-funded projects that they say have violated their rights.
In a way, the bank's response to the call for a moratorium demonstrated outright denial: "The Bank Group does not support speculative land investments or acquisitions which take advantage of weak institutions in developing countries or which disregard principles of responsible agricultural investment."
The bank also noted that 90 percent of its agricultural investment is focused on smallholders, and that the agricultural work of its private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has provided 37,000 jobs. By 2050, it warned, the global population is set to grow by two billion people, requiring a 70 percent increase in global food production.
Still, the bank recognised that its massive systems are imperfect and highlighted an upcoming overhaul of related guidelines that would "review and update its environmental and social safeguards policies".
"We agree that instances of abuse do exist, particularly in countries where governance is weak, and we share Oxfam's belief that in many cases, practices need to ensure more transparent and inclusive participation in cases of land transfers," the rebuttal stated.
Impetus from below
The degree to which these safeguards are followed nevertheless remains voluntary, said Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based think tank that has been at the forefront of recent civil society warnings about the effects of land speculation in the developing world.
"Back in 2009 and 2010, we were clearly identifying the role that the World Bank Group has been playing in promoting and facilitating these large-scale investments, completely ignoring the social and economic impact," she told IPS, referring to two reports (available here and here) that the new Oxfam work builds upon.
"Oxfam is reiterating that this kind of investment is misinvestment in communities, in agriculture, and unfortunately the bank is choosing to ignore the clear evidence that has been brought forward." Bank officials did not respond to requests for additional comment.
Mittal said that the development discussion needs to focus less on prescriptions handed down from multilaterals and more on the national implementation of internationally agreed rights including the rights to food and to free and prior informed consent.
"We're not interested in voluntary guidelines coming from Washington or Geneva, but rather in strengthening local and national capacities that help communities work best themselves," she said. "Each country in Africa, for instance, is in a unique situation. So what we need are real consultations at the local level to see what kind of development actually works for the local populations."
While Oxfam had called on the World Bank to move to halt its involvement in land deals before the annual meetings between the bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in Tokyo next week, the bank's new president is now suggesting that he will use the meetings to begin pushing substantial reforms aimed at holding the bank's anti-poverty approaches more to account.
"If we are going to be really serious about ending poverty earlier than currently projected...there are going to have to be some changes in the way we run the institution," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, preparing to attend his first annual meetings, told journalists on Thursday.
Kim said he would be pushing for a model "where our board and our governors focus much more on holding us accountable for results on the ground in countries, rather than focusing so much on approval of large loans".