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The focus on agriculture

In its latest World Development Report (WDR), the World Bank has made out a strong case for making agriculture the centrepiece of development strategies being pursued by developing countries. This would be critical for achieving the millennium development goal of reducing extreme poverty and hunger by half by 2015. Although the WDR, titled “Agriculture and Development,” does not break substantially new ground, its focus on the rural sector as a means of achieving basic social and economic goals is commendable. That approach has enabled the WDR to give a global perspective to national and regional issues. For instance, it has made an unambiguous appeal to the rich countries to carry out vital reforms such as cutting subsidies and opening up agricultural markets. This important agenda of the Doha development round has been its biggest stumbling block. Even a limited progress in the area can go a long way in alleviating poverty in some of the poorest regions of the world. If the United States reduces cotton subsidies, small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa stand to benefit — the region is home to some 417 million people living in rural areas, about 40 per cent of whom subsist on less than $1 a day.

The report, predictably, stresses the need for much greater investment in agriculture and rural sectors that have suffered from neglect and underinvestment over the past 20 years. Although 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, a mere 4 per cent of official development assistance goes to agriculture in developing countries. The WDR advocates an “agriculture for development” agenda pointing out that GDP growth is about four times more effective in reducing poverty among the poorest people if it originates in agriculture than if it does elsewhere. This important finding of the WDR should resonate well in India where major rural poverty alleviation programmes such as the employment guarantee scheme are under way on a large scale. The report’s recommendations for broad-basing agricultural actions have already been adopted with varying degrees of success. These include raising productivity levels in staple foods, persuading small landholders to take to horticulture and other high value activities and generating employment from non-farm activities. The WDR points out that global food supplies are under pressure to meet the growing demand for food, animal feed and more recently biofuel. The escalating price of energy, increasing land and water scarcity and the effects of climate change are all very material in drawing up an “agriculture for development” agenda.

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