Of Leopards and Spots

May 3, 2009

Although the World Bank committed last year to seeking solutions to the ongoing food crisis in developing economies, nothing has changed in the order of priorities which distributes resources across the globe.

Agriculture is still way, way down the list, receiving virtually no development assistance compared to financing “credit lines” to increase competitiveness, or funding inter-continental transportation systems.

Big projects that will benefit big corporations and national elites are taking the lion’s share of monies, while small scale, bottom up ventures like providing technical and financial assistance to small farmers, or reconstructing regional marketing boards for agricultural produce, are hardly on the agenda.

The African Development Bank, for instance, is disbursing a miserly $22 million to Kenya, money that will be specifically tied to “[restoring] agricultural production and livelihoods for 19,000 farm households displaced by the Post-Election Conflict (PEV) in the districts of Molo and Uasin Gishu in the Rift Valley Province.”

The World Bank, which is the ADB’s parent institution, is simultaneously doling out over $2 billion to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, money that will “upgrade the trade route linking China to Russia and Western Europe through Kazakhstan.”

Such projects are purely intended to smooth the way for goods produced in low wage economies like China, or for geostrategic reasons, but hardly for the poor in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh people depend mainly on either oil and gas revenues (distributed by a highly repressive and corrupt state) or on cotton production. But the cotton industry has been suffering recently from unsustainable over-planting. As Ferghana.ru reported last year, ” driven by profit, farmers forgot that growing a single crop without replenishing field nutrients is exhausting the soil and has a very negative influence on future crops.”

That’s a consequence of market reforms since the Soviet collapse, which have driven farmers into the expansion of cultivation, as government technical assistance has dried up.

Farmers have been unable to upgrade their techniques by introducing more efficient irrigation methods owing to an inability to access credit. Privatised banks have avoided lending to small farmers, leading them into a precarious existence on the edge of crippling debt and unsustainable cultivation.

Building a $2 billion road link to China and Europe won’t exactly help this. And it won’t help the fight against climate change. The World Bank seems not to have included any consideration of the impact such roads would have on carbon emissions. Again, nothing has changed. Yet supporting small farmers can have measurable benefits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Small farmers use less fossil fuel and are far more likely to incorporate practices like composting into their work. They are also much more likely to preserve biodiversity and tree cover on their properties. Supporting them is a win-win situation on social and environmental grounds, but the profit rates are low, at least from the perspective of a World Bank staff member accustomed to putting maximum profit at the centre of everything they do.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Bank has incorporated the findings of research like that contained in its own International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology into its decision making processes. It will be a long fight to get those findings into the institutional mainstream, if that is even possible.

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