It’s time for World Bank to be a land leader

Marloes Nicholls

Blog post by Marloes Nicholls

Oxfam Great Britain, GROW Campaigner
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Over the last few years, Oxfam has uncovered more and more about the extent and impact of land grabbing in the countries where we work. When the speed and scale of this phenomenon became clear, we knew we had to act. We strongly believe that the World Bank is in a unique position to change the rules of the game, which is why we are asking them to lead the way in changing how agricultural land is bought and sold in the developing world. The Bank has heard our calls and is committed to working with Oxfam further on the issue of land. Now it’s time to move forward.

Recap of the problem

The scramble for land across the developing world is vast. In poor countries, foreign investors have been buying an area of land twice the size of Mexico City every five days. In Liberia more than 30 per cent of land has been handed out in large-scale concessions in the past five years, often with disastrous results for local people. We’re not blaming the World Bank for this, but we are asking them to be a partner in helping to prevent poor people becoming the victims of land grabs in the future.

How we came to pick the World Bank

The responsibility for land-grabbing lies with many - from governments to private investors - but the strongest and most effective way to tackle this issue isn’t by targeting each of these different players. We need to look at the bigger picture, at the institutions who have influence over these diverse players, who govern and act as role models around the world. The World Bank is number one amongst these international institutions. It provides a vital source of finance to developing countries around the world and is a huge player on the global land scene. The Bank not only acts as a standard-setter for other investors, and as a policy advisor to developing country governments. It also has poverty alleviation as one of it’s central goals.

Considering that the World Bank’s investment in agriculture has increased from $2.5 billion in 2002 to $6-8 billion in 2012, the World Bank is very much a key player when it comes to land deals. Too many of these have already been revealed as controversial cases -21 complaints  involving land disputes have been brought against the World Bank  by communities since 2008 (Oxfam is involved as a complainant in a number of them). While not all of these cases relate to the kind of investment our campaign is focussed on – large-scale land acquisition – these complaints are a good indicator that something is going wrong in the Bank’s due dilligence process.   And according to the Bank’s own statistics, the number of disputes relating to agribusiness have been growing over the past four years.

We believe that if the World Bank won’t raise its standards, it’s unlikely that other financing institutions will do so either. That’s why we need the Bank to take leadership. If it does, we hope we can use this example to leverage change in other institutions, from regional development banks to private investors. We’re not attacking but encouraging the World Bank to use the vast power it has to change the terms of the land debate for good. And who could argue with that?

What we’re asking the World Bank to do

The World Bank can play a key role in stopping the global land rush by freezing its own investments in large scale land acquisitions for six months and putting its own house in order. In this time, we ask the Bank to set standards -- that other investors should follow too -- to ensure that no large-scale land deals are done to the detriment of the people living on the land.

The Bank should also make land deals more transparent so that investors can be held accountable to communities and local governments. And it should ensure community consent for projects it invests in, as well as playing a positive role in promoting land rights and good land governance.

How the World Bank has already engaged and what needs to happen next

It’s great that the World Bank is already engaging with our campaign publicly. 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. But it’s not enough. We’re 3 months into the campaign – and it’s time for real action.  The Bank has said that it won’t freeze these kind of deals for six months as we’ve asked (we’ve responded to the Bank with why they’re wrong that a land freeze isn’t a good idea. We’ll keep asking them for that. But we also need to hear how the Bank is going to respond to our other asks, set out above. They might disagree with the freeze, but that doesn’t stop them improving their policies.

Now is a prime opportunity for the World Bank to live up to its role as a global leader and show that it really can be a force for good.

If you haven’t already done so, ask the World Bank to do the right thing.