World Bank: when “Doing Business” means grabbing land


In the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank was famous for its infamous structural adjustment programs. Developing countries were asked to privatise, further restricting access to public services to the most in need, and to deregulate, eroding workers’ rights and social safety nets, in exchange for World Bank loans.

Far from breaking the circle of poverty, those programs destroyed the livelihoods of millions.

Despite numerous protests against structural adjustments and a reduced legitimacy for its policies, the World Bank has not altered its core ideology. Instead, the World Bank has given it a new name, Doing Business, and a new target: agriculture.

Doing Business is a yearly study conducted by the World Bank to rank countries according to their “ease of doing business”. The ranking openly gives prominence to the rights of entrepreneurs over the rights of citizens and environmental protection.

The underlying assumption of the World Bank is an automatic “trickle-down” effect of private entrepreneurship to the poor and the vulnerable. That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice it is more of a “trickle-up” effect, leading to more income and power inequality.

For instance, since the late 1970s, there has been a startling change in the distribution of national income in most countries around the world – steep declines in worker’s share of national income has been particularly noticeable.

The World Bank is now looking at adapting the Doing Business model to the agricultural sector: the Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA), with funding from the Gates Foundation, the UK, US, Dutch and Danish governments.

But putting something as fundamental as food in the hands of the World Bank is incredibly dangerous.

Governments are encouraged to commoditise their land – and to sell or lease it to foreign investors, regardless of potential environmental or social impacts. This leads to land grabbing.
The ranking is higher for countries with lower regulations. So if a foreign investor can easily buy land in a given country, the ranking improves.

A high ranking brings more funding opportunities for governments in developing countries, leaving them to compete between themselves for low standards and high scores.

In the developing world, foreign investment in agriculture can be a recipe for poverty.

Most people work on a land they do not possess.

In Tanzania for instance, more than 80 per cent of the people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, but less than 10 percent hold an official title to their land.

In Cameroon, Samuel N’Guiffo, who heads the Centre for Environment and Development, explained to Al Jazeera how “even if the communities are compensated [for the loss of their lands], it is hardly adequate, and the few resulting jobs do not pay enough to make up for the permanent loss of livelihood and way of life.”

Behind the virulence of the statements against BBAs is the strong belief among civil society worldwide that food is a not a commodity that can be traded and negotiated.

The right to food is a human right recognised under international law.

It requires states to provide an enabling environment in which people can use their full potential to produce or procure adequate food for themselves and their families.

But the language of human rights is all too often foreign to the World Bank – it’s a shame we cannot say the same about the rights of investors.


The Sustainable Jobs sub-plenary on Taming Corporate Power takes place at the ITUC Congress on Tuesday 20 May between 09.00 and 12.30.