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.

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