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.
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.
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.
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.