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China in Africa: The Real Story

New World Bank Study on Large-Scale "Land Grabs"

Deborah Brautigam

More mistaken reports of Chinese investment. photo: farmlandgrab.org

Two days ago, on September 7, 2010, the World Bank released its long-awaited study of large scale land investments. The report overall seems quite balanced and contains the expected mix of concern and pragmatism. In some countries with ample land and low population densities, commercial investment might provide benefits, if done with concern for mitigating social and environmental impact, and within the rule of law. The report emphasizes that far too often, this is not being done, and the potential for harm is immense.

Although I think it will be a helpful contribution, overall I was a bit disappointed in the study, for several reasons.

First, they actually made use of the media reports collected by GRAIN at farmlandgrab.org, put all of them into a database, and performed econometric analysis on them, without checking the veracity of these reports. Yet what does this really tell us about the realities of large-scale land investments when so many of the media reports are wrong?

With regard to Pakistan, for example, World Bank researchers did fieldwork to cross-check the media reports collected by GRAIN: "In none of these cases could any evidence of investment be found" (p. 40). Yet, apparently, even these spurious reports still went into the databases and number crunching.

This seems to me a bit like doing econometric analysis of media reports of all the suspected locations of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq circa 2002 and then saying something useful about the threat these posed to US national security.

Second, the report is very bland and addresses the issue at such a high level of aggregation that for anyone interested in learning specifics about the reality of Chinese activity in agricultural investment abroad, there was nothing whatsoever to learn. This is very different from the report produced by the researchers at FAO, IFAD, and IIEE in 2009 which admittedly had as one purpose looking into the veracity of these reports. Indeed, the researchers at Grain.org criticized the report for the very same reason, saying:
Had the Bank really wanted to shed light on this new investment trend it would have at least peeled back the curtain on the investors. Who are they? What are they after?
But perhaps other readers will have different opinions? Click here for an ongoing discussion on this topic.  

Keywords: China, Africa, World Bank, land grab