The report's findings show that the 2.1 billion people earning less than $2 a day mainly live in rural areas, with their livelihoods hinging upon agricultural activities. However, only 4 percent of official development assistance to developing regions is actually allocated for agriculture, an astonishing decrease from 12 percent in 1990, considering the growth in global populations and a rising demand for crops.
The report predicts that world demand for crops — whether for food, livestock feed or biofuels — will double in the next 50 years, while natural resources necessary to agriculture are becoming scarce or degraded due to the impacts of global climate change.According to the report, areas of focus include sub-Saharan Africa, with the report indicating that farm subsidies for commodities such as cotton and oilseeds in wealthier countries need to be changed as they force prices down for small farmers in developing nations. This would mean determining more innovative policies to help farmers shift to high-value agriculture, in addition to decentralizing activities such as food processing to rural areas.
Of course, the report and the World Bank's belated recognition of the important role of agriculture in alleviating global poverty drew skepticism from observers, activists and citizens of developing nations alike — in the face of the negative realities of World Bank-funded projects and liberalized economic and development policies.
In last week's meeting of World Bank Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands — which heard the testimonies of people directly affected by such projects in Peru, Mali, Nicaragua, Malawi and Nigeria — there was no dearth of case studies exposing how World Bank projects actually served the interests of wealthy elites and multi-national corporations in donor countries, while still neglecting to meet basic needs of the poor.
In Nicaragua for instance, the privatization of the electricity sector resulted in increased blackouts when thousands had their power cut off for non-payment. Similarly, according to the Independent People's Tribunal of the World Bank Group in India, the role of the World Bank in reducing state subsidies, reduced access to low interest loans for the poor and the "opening up of the Indian economy to an uneven playing field in international trade in agricultural commodities" resulted in the dramatic phenomenon of India's infamous farmer suicides, with an estimated 137,000 farmers killing themselves due to their inability to pay off their loans once their crops failed (for more information, see here and this interview with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva as well).
In light of this, it is even more alarming that the World Bank's intention is to further shift policies to enhance the role of private sector companies and corporate-backed agencies in the distribution of development aid through the World Bank's International Development Association. Would it mean that multinationals such as transgenic giant Monsanto would gain even greater control over global agriculture markets and poor farmers in their choice of using or not using genetically modified seed varieties, which Monsanto owns questionably but profitably as "intellectual property"?
Other organizations such as Oxfam welcomed the World Bank's report, but cautioned that it must address deeper social inequalities if increased agriculture aid is to ease poverty. For example, Oxfam notes that "women produce more than half of all the food grown worldwide, yet own only two per cent of all land and get only one per cent of lending to agriculture" — a rather glaring oversight in the World Bank's fact-findings if they really do mean business about poverty (and I bet they do).
Gawain Kripke of Oxfam International adds, "The Bank must learn, and not repeat mistakes from its last agricultural report 25 years ago. Trade liberalization by itself does not help the poor. This is a fallacy. Rapid liberalization can undermine growth and compound inequality. Moreover rich countries have yet to reform their own agricultural policies and are still dumping on the world markets. Forcing developing countries to liberalize in the face of this would be a continuing disaster."
::2008 World Development Report via ::Gulf News
Image: Robert Zoellick, World Bank President, former United States Deputy Secretary of State (Getty Images)