Land grabs: Debunking the World Bank's "throwing the baby out with the bath water" argument

Marloes Nicholls

Blog post by Marloes Nicholls

Oxfam Great Britain, GROW Campaigner
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Last month Oxfam launched a campaign calling on the World Bank to freeze their large land acquisitions for 6 months. We felt compelled to act because of the irresponsible global scramble by banks and private investors to buy land in the developing world. As it stands, this is too often leading to people and communities losing their homes and the land they grow their food on because there aren't adequate protections in place.

Thousands of people across the world are calling for the Bank to be a leader in this area, and whilst the Bank is listening, they’ve not yet agreed to change their policies.

So in a series of blogs, we’re exploring why the World Bank has, so far, rejected our calls. We’ve already outlined in detail why we don’t buy the Bank’s arguments. And we’ve explained further why we don’t accept the Bank’s contention that they’re not the right target.

The World Bank and small farmers

Another reason the World Bank has given for rejecting Oxfam’s call for an investment freeze is what I’ll call the “throwing the baby out with the bath water” argument. They argue that a freeze will result not just in pulling the plug on projects that have led to human trauma, but also on projects that are benefiting the very people that Oxfam seeks to support. In particular, because Oxfam is calling for a freeze on agricultural land acquisitions, the World Bank claims that this could harm small holder farmers, who represent the poorest group of people in the world.

To be clear, Oxfam has never argued (and never will) that the World Bank should not be investing in agriculture. That’s precisely because Oxfam is committed to helping the most vulnerable people in the world, such as small holder farmers. What we want to ensure, though, is that as the World Bank’s investment in agriculture increases (it has risen from $2.5 billion in 2002 to $6-8 billion in 2012), this money is genuinely benefiting people.

The World Bank: major investor in agriculture

We are not calling for the Bank to get out of agriculture altogether, but for a temporary 6 month freeze on agricultural investments that involve large-scale land acquisition.

This is because we recognise the value of investing in agriculture, but we oppose a particular type of agricultural investment - that which involves the mass transfer of land rights away from poor farmers and communities, and frequently leads to conflict and poverty. Oxfam welcomes agricultural investment – both large-scale and small – that benefit communities and lead to shared benefits based on consultation and consent. For those of you who are more interested in this, we have recently published a paper outlining models of positive agricultural investment, and Oxfam GB CEO Barbara Stocking reiterated recently in the Financial Times.

Precedence for an investment freeze

A freeze creates the time and space needed to make sure that the necessary regulations are in place to protect people, and it isn’t a new or untried method. The Bank has actually employed this method before, when it froze lending to the palm oil sector as a result of a controversial case in Indonesia, in order to ensure that the Bank’s investments were not responsible for having a negative impact on people there.

The World Bank is listening

We’re not disheartened by the World Bank’s initial reaction to the campaign. Despite their current public stance, the actions of thousands of people have really made them sit up and listen at their highest levels. When the World Bank asked on Twitter, “#whatwillittake to end poverty?” you deluged them with tweets and Facebook comments asking them to help stop land grabs. This led to World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte making time to join Oxfam in person for a debate during their annual meetings last month.

It’s great that the World Bank is engaging with the campaign publicly, through blogs and social media. They have acknowledged that abuses exist and share our concern that land grabbing is a problem. They are also committed to talking to Oxfam about this issue. So we remain hopefuly that there is still a good opportunity to influence the Bank and their new President Jim Kim.

Oxfam believes that the World Bank, as a multi-billion dollar player in the purchasing of land and as a global standard setter and policy advisor to developing countries, is in a unique position to be a force for good and make a difference to poor communities around the world.

Take action

> Sign the petition to the president of the World Bank

Related links

> Land grabs Q&A

> Read the report: ‘Our Land, Our Lives’: Time out on the global land rush