With 1B Hungry Globally, World Bank, USAID, and the Gates Foundation Need a New Approach


In talking about addressing food security in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Gates Foundation — what I would call the “international development establishment” — often focus on the need to increase crop production in Africa. Their outlook is based on the 1960s Green Revolution, which in the 1960s averted famine in India and Latin America through the deployment of high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Yet while the Green Revolution’s proponents emphasize the yield improvements due to crop technologies, they neglect the social ramifications associated with highly capital- and input-intensive agriculture: land consolidation and landless laborers. Such a reductionist approach assumes that high yields will ensure access to food, regardless of who controls production and who is displaced by agriculture’s capital intensity. But this model warrants re-evaluation in light of the fact that nearly one billion people are hungry today.

The Green Revolution has taken on an ideological hegemony over the agricultural development field. Part of this industrial approach is the notion that farmers’ income generation will automatically guarantee their food security — a fallacy that the U.S. has invested in.

As Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture agencies in Rome, told me, referring to a U.S. and Pepsi Co. public-private partnership in Ethiopia centered on chickpea production for export: “What’s exciting about this is that in order to manufacture the product, [Pepsi] will buy from smallholders. In those same places you have jobs being created that are off farm jobs for unskilled labor that was previously unemployed. Those are the kinds of collective partnerships that smallholders benefit from and that the private sector helps drive.”

Yet, this export production model has historically come at the expense of local self-sufficiency in Africa.

“The colonial powers in a sense changed local economies from ones largely based on subsistence or engaged in local regional trade, to ones that move away from subsistence production and start producing crops useful to the core powers,” said Bill Moseley, a geography professor at Macalester College. “Related to this was the notion that colonies should be not a burden on imperial powers but be generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining. There was a big push for them to be more export-oriented.”

Export-based commodity production accelerated in the 1980s amid pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In response to Africa’s debt crisis, these institutions imposed the idea that people should use agriculture systems to generate the capital to buy food on global market. Reliance on exports — and the resulting decline in local production — was fine as long as global food prices remained low.

But the 2008 food crisis exposed this vulnerability. The high cost of chemical inputs, and the diversion of crops toward biofuel and livestock production, pushed millions more into the ranks of the hungry, and Africa was hit hardest because of its reliance on international food markets. The situation for Africa was made worse when Asian and Latin American countries restricted exports in an effort to secure food supplies for their own populations. The forces that caused the 2008 crisis are still prevalent today, underlining the urgency of investment in Africa’s local food systems.

Land grabbing marks a third manifestation of Africa’s susceptibility to global food markets. Foreign countries, particularly from the Middle East and Asia, are buying up African farmland and shipping the food back home — all at the expense of African smallholder farmers who are driven off their land.

Most problematic is the way that the World Bank has responded to the land acquisitions. As seen in its Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, the Bank is unwilling to challenge foreign land investors’ premise that local people will benefit, namely from employment in commercial agriculture operations. The Bank talks about the need to “mitigate” the negative impacts of land grabbing on the poorest populations. But if the most vulnerable don’t achieve food security — and I believe they won’t, because of their vulnerability to high global food prices — then that destroys the legitimacy of the World Bank’s viewpoint.

Food security in the developing world requires agricultural approaches that keep smallholder farmers on their land rather than leave them subject to international food price spikes. As Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes: “The right to food is not a commodity, and we must stop treating it that way.”

Photo Credit: DFID