It is being called the new “resource curse.”
Throughout the developing world, a global land rush is in full throttle. Agricultural companies, biofuel and timber concerns, investment groups and governments eager to insure food supplies for their citizens are driving a virtual frenzy to buy up rights to arable land, especially in Africa.
But the deals, while massive in scale, are coming under heavy criticism for a lack of transparency, and for spreading hardship and poverty instead of alleviating them. And the World Bank, which has been among the most eloquent critics of these deals, is at the same time midwife to many of them.
Through an array of services and products, the bank advises governments in developing countries on competing for foreign investment, helps finance those investments and insures companies against the risk of a political backlash.
Its “Doing Business” reports rank countries on the ease of investment, through a system that appears to penalize countries for close oversight and public input. Its Technical Assistance and Advisory Service advises countries on how to attract foreign investment, typically by removing government regulation that can slow business. Its International Finance Corporation directly invests in projects, while its Multi-Lateral Insurance Guaranty Agency, a profit-making arm of the bank, insures companies against political fallout from these increasingly common land deals.
All of this, critics say, does little to further the bank’s official mission of eradicating poverty.
“They’re not ending poverty,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of non-profit Oakland Institute, which has done extensive research on large-scale land acquisitions. “They might be ending the poor.”
Irina Likhachova, a spokeswoman for the International Finance Corporation, said the bank’s efforts are aimed at reducing hunger, but that the World Bank was not equipped to work with small landholders. Only a relatively minor share of its financial support, she added, goes to acquisition of land rights.
“It’s not the fact of land acquisition that’s the problem,” she added. “It’s how certain things are done.”