Grow: The Good, The Bad and The Uncertain

Today, Oxfam launch their big new advocacy campaign, Grow. Unsurprisingly, it’s slick, looks good, and is packed with soundbites that will make their way into umpteen speeches and pub-based arguments in the next few months, with the choice stat being that while $312 billion is spent on fossil fuel consumption subsidies annually, the total volume of ODA for agriculture is less than $10 billion.

The central thrust of it won’t surprise anyone too much: food security, climate change and equity have been at the centre of Oxfam’s sphere of interest for some time now. Grow puts these into a coherent framework. It’s essentially predicated on one central challenge: feeding the world’s poor in the context of increasing demand for food. Achieving this, we are told, is complicated by the ecological challenges of increasing production without causing irreparable damage to the environment, the logistical challenge of dealing with increasingly frequent crises moments in food security and the moral challenge of huge inequity in hunger and in the incidence of the costs of how we currently produce food.

I expect most of you will read the document for yourselves; for now I’m going to give a very quick summary of some of the things I think it does well; some of the things I think might be misguided, and some of the things I just don’t know about.  Opinions, as ever, welcome in the comments.

The Good

Given the name of Duncan’s blog, and his interests, it’s not a surprise that the report contains a pretty decent power analysis of why bad practices are difficult to budge: because the incentives in the current system and the vested interests in maintaining them make ‘bad’ practices profitable for rich and thus powerful groups. The language is very advocacy-document, but it does identify some of the key issues:

We will have to overcome the vested interests that stand to lose out, and which will strongly resist. The powerful elites in poor countries that control land and block reform. The farm lobbies of rich countries that plunder public purses, tipping the playing field against poor farmers. The dirty industries that block action on climate change at every turn. The seed companies whose myopic pursuit of patents undermines public research and leaves poor farmers on the margins. The multinational traders who profit as food markets unravel. The financial institutions that bet on them doing so.

The second thing I really like in the document is the focus on equity, an issue that is slowly returning to the debating table in development. While Oxfam pay much less attention to jobs and work as a motor for improving equity than I would like, I am incredibly pleased to see an entire section on the importance of collective action, and in particular unionism, as a tool for seizing rights.

Finally, the Grow campaign does not just look to donors or the international development architecture (in this I include subsidies and trade as well as aid), but also looks at national, developing country policies and approaches. I like this approach – it’s not about the West saving the world, it’s about the West rectifying some of the problems in the way it engages with the world, and the poor claiming their rights and carving out a niche in a set of global relationships. Oxfam are good at advocacy, so it’s nice to see it aimed broadly.

The Bad

This wouldn’t be Aid Thoughts if I didn’t have some gripes, though. There are two big areas where I’m doubtful. The first relates to one of the good things about the report: it recognizes that there are really powerful vested interests aligned against the changes the report calls for. The problem is that I don’t see a clear strategy for dealing with these interests beyond ‘naming and shaming’ and advocacy for better practices. I suspect this will only make private vested interests (normally corporations) change just enough to buy breathing space. Real success in the sphere depends on changing the incentives at work for these vested interests, by changing their risk/reward/cost ratios. This is the hardest thing to do, but ultimately it’s the one with the biggest potential. How do we go about it? I’m not sure, but I’d like to see an attempt at a strategy.

The other major concern I have with the report is the high regard it has for smallholder farming.

It is true that some countries have made amazing advances in smallholder agriculture, and a couple have even developed or gone very far down that road on the back of smallholdings. These are outliers, and Vietnam is one of them, though in part attributable to the fact that there are over 2000 rivers in the country over 10km long – that’s a lot of available water. Grow goes so far as to smash some myths about smallholder farming, that they are unproductive and averse to risk, markets and technology. They are correct to do so. However, one thing they don’t address is that smallholder farms have a far, far tougher job colluding to take advantage of the massive economies of scale available to large farms.  Irrigation, mechanization, crop rotation, research and development, fertilizer purchase, agri-processing: all are far easier for a larger agricultural unit.

What’s more, looking at agriculture in isolation, as Grow does, prevents us from seeing the bigger picture in development needs: that a country needs to mechanise and become at least semi-industrial for significant development to take place. This being the case, they must become less labour-intensive in agriculture, something that cannot be achieved in a system of smallholdings. There’s a reason why so few developed countries retain smallholder agriculture.

This is symptomatic, for me, of the biggest problem with the campaign – it’s narrow focus on food security from the agriculture side. Of course, this is important. But for me the biggest and most neglected area of import in development right now is the need for jobs, and dealing with the dynamic problems of unemployment and underemployment. There are lots of ways we can try address them, and strategy needs to be made.

The Uncertain

One area I can’t give any definitive opinion on is the predictions made in the report. Grow makes some pretty startling claims, including that demand for food may increase by up to 70% by 2050. It acknowledges that these predictions have a high margin of error, which is good, but I’m not sure what the likely future scenarios are. I haven’t had time to read through all the evidence or follow the footnotes. They also claim that food price volatility is increasing – but the graph on page 36 seems to show (by eye-estimation) pretty high volatility since the 1970s. Again, I haven’t had time to actually do any calculations.

Grow doesn’t depend on these figures being watertight, but it does derive some of its strength from them, so any readers who have an opinion (or better done any analysis) one way or another are really encouraged to leave a comment.

Overall, how do I see it? I like some of the focal areas, and the approach to much of what it chooses to advocate on.  I love the fact that it recognizes the power of collective action in developing countries in asserting rights, and that it’s not just about what the West, or donors, can do. I’m not sure about the narrow focus on agriculture, which might bias some of our recommendations and gives too little import to wage labour, the best way of fighting poverty available to us.

Will it sell as well as Make Poverty History? I genuinely don’t know. Oxfam are good at this sort of thing, so lets see how they push it in the next few months.

4 thoughts on “Grow: The Good, The Bad and The Uncertain

  1. Jason

    June 1, 2011 at 4:54pm

    I almost completely disagree with your gripes about the grow campaign.

    First, you advocate that we should change the incentive structure of companies so that they act more responsibly, but provide no suggestions as to what that means. Should governments regulate them more heavily, abandon subsidies, etc? But if companies have so much leverage (for example the farm lobby in the U.S.) than how exactly do you propose to do that? The market is the market, if we can’t change the rules of the game through legislative means, than naming and shaming historically has always been the best way to change companies behavior. Consumers to have some power.

    Second, empowering smallholder agriculture is the most pro-poor way to encourage development in largely rural/poor countries, period. Sure it’s not as efficient as large agribusiness, and it doesn’t immediately lead to urban/industrial jobs, but that’s not the point. The point is empowerment, once families can start saving up through relatively lucrative and stable agriculture, they can invest in more land and technology for larger, more productive farms, afford to send their kids to school, help fund other industries related to agriculture (like processing), and pay for other non-agricultural services which boosts the economy. As they get more productive, farm size will increase and less workers will be required, but that is to be expected, it is the process of structural transformation that we see everywhere. But it needs to start somewhere.

    Your comment that the agricultural focus of the GROW campaign is too narrow is also off the mark. For years, decades, agricultural research and investment has plummeted around the developing world while other development efforts have received much more attention (with some notable exceptions like China and Brazil). The fact that agriculture is finally getting some attention can only be a good thing. No campaign can address all the problems in the world. But agriculture, which is related to food security, environmental health, and rural development is about as comprehensive as you can be.

    And finally, one of the reasons for such high urban unemployment is that so many people have moved to the city precisely because small-holder agriculture was so under-invested in. Its one thing for a country to urbanize because agriculture is becoming more productive and requires less laborers, but quite another if it is out of desperation. Focusing on industrialization at the expense of agriculture is just another example of the urban bias we have seen over the decades (especially in Africa) and has led to more food insecurity for urban food consumers in the longer run.

  2. John Coghlan

    June 2, 2011 at 12:34am

    Thank you for a thought provoking review.
    I agree with you that there might have been more emphasis on trade union involvement in demanding ‘decent jobs’ as a means of attaining social protection and distribution of wealth.

    Donors rarely recognise the important role that local trade unions can play in advancing social issues and wealth distribution in developing countries.

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    June 2, 2011 at 7:24am

    Thanks for the comments, both of you.

    Jason – taking your points one by one:

    As I acknowledge above, I don’t know exactly how we should change the incentive structures involved. However some ideas would involve regulation (as you suggest), fines and subsidies for different types of behaviour than currently exist, modifying taxation etc. Big business may have a lot of influence with Governments, but so do electorates – more than as consumers – and that influence is a lot more direct than advocacy and ‘naming and shaming’ by consumers.

    Secondly, everything you say about smallholder agriculture might possibly be right, but virtually no countries have ever successfully developed on the back of it. Vietnam is the closest example I can think of, and that’s it. job creation (both agricultural and urban, this is one of the biggest advantages of large farms – more stable jobs and incomes for rural populations) is far more proven, and far easier to engineer.

    In almost all situations, the primary cause of instability in smallholder agriculture is size of holding and structure of incentives: poor rains, lack of fertiliser, bad practices etc. are all much easier to deal with the larger and more commercial the enterprise. Large farms have economies of scale, as I stated above. They are also driven by much clearer incentive structures. Supporting smallholder farms does nothing to address these fundamental issues; it just alleviates some of the manifestations of them, and I don’t think that’s a good approach to solution.

    What’s more, large farms have not historically been created by incremental increase in size from small farms – they’ve generally been created in a big go, often by nasty means like land seizure by the state or influential individuals (I’m talking about the West here, more than developing countries – it happened in the UK and US); I’m not advocating this as a development tool, but it’s something to think about before we consider supporting smallholders as a way of building up large commercial farms.

    I’ve written about this in much more depth here: . Duncan Greene and Owen Barder have also written about this from different perspectives you might wish to read (appropriate links in the post).

    Secondly, agriculture has received quite a lot of attention in development. Some of the stats put forward by Grow are misleading because they only consider bilateral aid. Multilaterals are typically the main motor of agricultural support: FAO, IFAD, World Bank, African Development Bank and EU are all very active in the Agriculture sector. As an example, here is a list of all currently active World Bank projects in the agriculture sector:

    In any case my argument is not that we should ignore agriculture and focus on industry but that we shouldn’t consider agriculture in isolation from its potential effects on industrial development; doing this, in my opinion, is part of the reason for some of the weaknesses in the campaign.

    Thirdly, rural-urban migration patterns are far more complex than you allow there. Many people leave even smallholdings because of how landholdings are inherited. In systems of primogeniture, by necessity most people will need to migrate to urban areas because anyone except the first born son will not have any land. Smallholdings, even the most brilliantly effective of them, do not have the potential to absorb wage-labour that large farms do. As a result, there is huge agricultural unemployment, which leads to urban migration, where marginal work can be found. There underemployment is marginally less severe than in rural areas.

    Even in other systems of inheritance, smallholder agriculture is far less able to support workforces than large holdings, and underemployment becomes a problem, even when the farm is super-efficient and effective. It’s not at all clear that focusing on smallholder agriculture will do anything to create more jobs on smallholdings – by their nature they do not rely on large workforces. As a result rural-urban migration patterns may change only slightly.

    Finally, and as an aside (I realise it’s not a pillar of your argument at all), I’m really not a fan of urban bias theory. It’s based on a big unspoken assumption that rural areas have no political voice. This is simply untrue in much of the world. Even the rural poor have a voice – they are not helpless peasants, but have powered revolutionary movements in Asia and in Africa.

    John – couldn’t agree more. Donors are terrified of even uttering the word ‘union’.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    June 2, 2011 at 7:27am

    just a quick clarification about the world bank link – only the first 650 projects are so are active.

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