Biofuel production is certainly one of the culprits in the current global food crisis. But while the diversion of corn from food to biofuel feedstock has been a factor in food prices shooting up, the more primordial problem has been the conversion of economies that are largely food-self-sufficient into chronic food importers. Here the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) figure as much more important villains.
Whether in Latin America, Asia, or Africa, the story has been the same: the destabilization of peasant producers by a one-two punch of IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programs that gutted government investment in the countryside followed by the massive influx of subsidized U.S. and European Union agricultural imports after the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture pried open markets. .
African agriculture is a case study of how doctrinaire economics serving corporate interests can destroy a whole continent’s productive base.
From Exporter to Importer
At the time of decolonization in the 1960s,
Agriculture is in deep crisis, and the causes are many, including civil wars and the spread of HIV-AIDS. However, a very important part of the explanation was the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms under the structural adjustment programs to which most African countries were subjected as the price for getting IMF and World Bank assistance to service their external debt.
Instead of triggering a virtuous spiral of growth and prosperity, structural adjustment saddled
Lifting price controls on fertilizers while simultaneously cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced applications, lower yields, and lower investment. One would have expected the non-economist to predict this outcome, which was screened out by the Bank and Fund’s free-market paradigm. Moreover, reality refused to conform to the doctrinal expectation that the withdrawal of the state would pave the way for the market and private sector to dynamize agriculture. Instead, the private sector believed that reducing state expenditures created more risk and failed to step into the breach. In country after country, the predictions of neoliberal doctrine yielded precisely the opposite: the departure of the state “crowded out” rather than “crowded in” private investment. In those instances where private traders did come in to replace the state, an Oxfam report noted, “they have sometimes done so on highly unfavorable terms for poor farmers,” leaving “farmers more food insecure, and governments reliant on unpredictable aid flows.” The usually pro-private sector Economist agreed, admitting that “many of the private firms brought in to replace state researchers turned out to be rent-seeking monopolists.”
What support the government was allowed to muster was channeled by the Bank to export agriculture – to generate the foreign exchange earnings that the state needed to service its debt to the Bank and the Fund. But, as in
As in many other regions, structural adjustment in
The Role of Trade
Compounding the negative impact of adjustment were unfair trade practices on the part of the EU and the
These dismal outcomes were not accidental. As then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it at the start of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1986, “the idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on
What Block did not say was that the lower cost of
The social consequences of structural adjustment cum agricultural dumping were predictable. According to Oxfam, the number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day more than doubled to 313 million people between 1981 and 2001 – or 46% of the whole continent. The role of structural adjustment in creating poverty, as well as severely weakening the continent’s agricultural base and consolidating import dependency, was hard to deny. As the World Bank’s chief economist for
That was, however, a rare moment of candor. What was especially disturbing was that, as
The Case of
This stubbornness led to tragedy in
It was a tragedy preceded by success. In 1998 and 1999, the government initiated a program to give each smallholder family a “starter pack” of free fertilizers and seeds. This followed several years of successful experimentation in which the packs were provided only to the poorest families. The result was a national surplus of corn. What came after, however, is a story that will be enshrined as a classic case study in a future book on the 10 greatest blunders of neoliberal economics.
The World Bank and other aid donors forced the drastic scaling down and eventual scrapping of the program, arguing that the subsidy distorted trade. Without the free packs, food output plummeted. In the meantime, the IMF insisted that the government sell off a large portion of its strategic grain reserves to enable the food reserve agency to settle its commercial debts. The government complied. When the crisis in food production turned into a famine in 2001-2002, there were hardly any reserves left to rush to the countryside. About 1,500 people perished. The IMF, however, was unrepentant; in fact, it suspended its disbursements on an adjustment program with the government on the grounds that “the parastatal sector will continue to pose risks to the successful implementation of the 2002/03 budget. Government interventions in the food and other agricultural markets…crowd out more productive spending.”
When an even worse food crisis developed in 2005, the government finally had enough of the Bank and IMF’s institutionalized stupidity. A new president reintroduced the fertilizer subsidy program, enabling two million households to buy fertilizer at a third of the retail price and seeds at a discount. The results: bumper harvests for two years in a row, a surplus of one million tons of maize, and the country transformed into a supplier of corn to other countries in
But the World Bank, like its sister agency, still stubbornly clung to the discredited doctrine. As the Bank’s country director told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “All those farmers who begged, borrowed, and stole to buy extra fertilizer last year are now looking at that decision and rethinking it. The lower the maize price, the better for food security but worse for market development.”
Beyond Africa, even former supporters of adjustment, like the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in
Unable to deny the obvious, the Bank has finally acknowledged that the whole structural adjustment enterprise was a mistake, though it smuggled this concession into the middle of the 2008 World Development Report, perhaps in the hope that it would not attract too much attention. Nevertheless, it was a damning admission:
Structural adjustment in the 1980’s dismantled the elaborate system of public agencies that provided farmers with access to land, credit, insurance inputs, and cooperative organization. The expectation was that removing the state would free the market for private actors to take over these functions—reducing their costs, improving their quality, and eliminating their regressive bias. Too often, that didn’t happen. In some places, the state’s withdrawal was tentative at best, limiting private entry. Elsewhere, the private sector emerged only slowly and partially—mainly serving commercial farmers but leaving smallholders exposed to extensive market failures, high transaction costs and risks, and service gaps. Incomplete markets and institutional gaps impose huge costs in forgone growth and welfare losses for smallholders, threatening their competitiveness and, in many cases, their survival.
In sum, biofuel production did not create but only exacerbated the global food crisis. The crisis had been building up for years, as policies promoted by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO systematically discouraged food self-sufficiency and encouraged food importation by destroying the local productive base of smallholder agriculture. Throughout
Walden Bello is a senior analyst at Focus on the Global South, a program of
1. Charles Abugre, “Behind Crowded Shelves: as Assessment of Ghana’s Structural Adjustment Experiences, 1983-1991,” (San Francisco: food First, 1993), p. 87.
2. “Trade Talks Round Going Nowhere sans Progress in Farm Reform,” Business World (Phil), Sept. 8, 2003, p. 15
3. Quoted in “Cakes and Caviar: the Dunkel Draft and
4. Morris Miller, Debt and the Environment: Converging Crisis (New York: UN, 1991), p. 70.
5. Ngaire Woods, The Globalizers: the IMF, the World Bank, and their Borrowers (Thaca: