Science - November 8, 2007

Agriculture is in again

Agriculture in developing countries has been out of favour for almost twenty-five years among the international donor community. They were more interested in spending their money on education and health care. With its World Development Report 2008, entitled Agriculture for Development, the World Bank is once again talking about agriculture as the motor for development. Reason for cautious optimism in Wageningen.

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The renewed interest in agriculture may herald a change of direction in (Dutch) development cooperation, and that might mean more research funding at Wageningen UR in this field. Nienke Beintema, who works for the International Food Policy Research Institute and is stationed at Wageningen International, has already noticed a change. The World Development Report refers to research she undertook, in which she surveyed the investments made by different countries in agricultural research. She noted that big countries like China and India have recently started to spend far more money on agricultural research, while African countries are still lagging behind. Beintema found it difficult to get funding for her own research in past years, but now that agriculture is in again, she has been asked to keep an eye on the trends of investment in agricultural research for the future.

The agriculture featured in the World Bank’s agenda is geared towards exporting produce to wealthier markets. The introduction of the World Development Report sketches a picture of a poor African woman, bent under the sun weeding her sorghum, carrying her baby on her back. She is trapped in poverty because she is dependent on the meagre yields from subsistence agriculture. Others, the report continues, have escaped this poverty by seeking out the market. They do this for example by joining producers’ organisations and signing contracts with exporters and supermarkets in the west so that they can export their vegetables. The World Bank regards export chains as the gateway to development, and therefore intends to support farmers’ organisations.

The focus on agriculture does not mean the World Bank is ignoring other issues such as responsible management of natural resources, the consequences of climate change for poor farmers, the lagging position of women, or the importance of a strong state to correct for market failure. Nevertheless, the World Development Report 2008 is very optimistic about the blessings of the free market.

Too optimistic, according to twenty-one Dutch organisations in their response to the report earlier this year. Together with Oxfam, ICCO and Agri-Pro-Focus, Wim Andriesse of Wageningen International was part of the initiative: ‘We are very happy with the renewed emphasis on agriculture, and we agree that chains can contribute to development. But there is a but. Not everyone can supply to chains, and there is great danger that the World Bank will regard chains as the only focus. If you do that you are ignoring the large group of small farmers that cannot manage to export, but do supply the immediate local population with food and manage the natural resources. You are only dealing with the successful farmer who is capable of organising and complying with the quality requirements of chains.’

Wim Andriesse also has a message for the Dutch government in response to the World Bank report. ‘Policy should be more coherent, which means that the different ministries must work towards the same goals. It is good to see that the ministries of agriculture and development cooperation are working on this and discussing the interests of the Dutch agricultural sector and those of small-scale farmers in developing countries.’ Andriesse also concludes that both ministries could make more use of the Netherlands’ strong points when it comes to contributing to agricultural development in the south. Andriesse is perhaps preaching to the converted: ‘Agricultural research and capacity building through education can lead to profits for agriculture in developing countries. That’s where the investments should be.’ / Joris Tielens

On Tuesday 18 December the team that compiled the World Development Report will visit Wageningen for an expert meeting. See: www.agri-profocus.nl, Agriculture for development, the Dutch way.

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