Experts question WB project in farm sector : Suggest need assessment before seeking foreign loans

Mustafizur Rahman

After two major ‘reform’ initiatives that proved disastrous for the country’s jute sector, the World Bank has come up with another project in Bangladesh’s agriculture raising doubts among experts about its real intention.
   The $84.6 million National Agriculture Technology Project conceived in February 2008, apparently aims at improving national agricultural productivity and farm income to reduce extreme poverty and hunger.
   The project has four components – agricultural research support, agricultural extension support, development of supply chains and institutional efficiency.
   Experts in agriculture suggest that the government should assess the real needs before seeking funds from global lenders for the sector, which is doing well even without any foreign assistance and limited support from the public coffers.
   Involvement of the World Bank in the vital sector has also raised doubts in many because of the lending agency’s past policies that led to the death of jute sector, once the biggest export earner of the country.
   ‘The country’s agriculture sector has been making significant progress since early 1980s…We must work out our requirements in the area before taking assistance from the World Bank or any other international agency,’ former agriculture minister MK Anwar told New Age Saturday.
   The government is negotiating implementation of the Tk 622 crore project initially taken up by Fakhruddin Ahmed’s interim government in June 2007 with WB fund. Work on the project, scheduled for completion in 2013, started in September 2008 with a contribution of Tk 48 crore from the government.
   This is a major WB project in Bangladesh’s agriculture after the Jute Sector Reform Programme and Jute Sector Adjustment Credit implemented in early 1990s that reduced the once vibrant jute industry to a footnote in history.
   Bangladesh received less than $300 million in loan from the WB for the two projects at the cost of its overseas jute market and closure of 60 out of 82 state-owned jute mills that employed several million workers and provided a living for 25 million people engaged in jute farming and trading.
   As a sequel to the credit programmes, wheels of Adamjee, the world’s largest jute mills, ground to a halt in July 2002 taking the blame for losses resulted from neglect, corruption and mismanagement of decades.
   ‘In fact there is no need for such loans. Tk 622 crore is not a large sum…,’ says Professor Anu Muhammad, who teaches economics at Jahangirnagar University.
   Agriculture now is a global business and that is why the World Bank is offering money to countries like Bangladesh with a view to further commercialising the farm sector and intervening more in policies, which will ultimately put the country’s food security in jeopardy, he warned.
   He cited WB-influenced policies in the past that weakened the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation and extension services.
   ‘Only beneficiaries, who include consultants, will welcome such WB funds,’ said Professor Anu.
   He suggested that the government should assess the impacts of previous WB-aided ‘reform’ projects and work out a futuristic plan for agricultural development to ensure food security.
   This time the World Bank wanted non-government organisations as partners in implementing the NATP.
   ‘Why should we invite the NGOs for implementation of the agriculture sector project? We will take assistance only where we need it. We must assess our needs first and that must be done by ourselves,’ MK Anwar, a senior leader of the opposition BNP, said.
   The government, however, has turned down the lender’s proposal for engaging NGOs in implementing the NATP.
   ‘We have rejected outright the World Bank’s proposal for including NGOs in the Common Interest Groups to be formed at the grassroots under the first ever project in agriculture sector with World Bank assistance,’ agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury said Tuesday after a meeting with the lender’s representatives.
   She said the WB officials were convinced that the CIGs should be formed with the farmers at the village level without any involvement of the NGOs.
   Talking with New Age on the issue, former adviser to the interim government CS Karim said the country should go for need-based research in the agriculture sector.
   ‘We need to develop new varieties of paddy for southern parts of the country already affected by salinity. Moreover, the agriculture sector must be developed keeping in view the effects of climate change,’ Karim, also a nuclear scientist, pointed out.
   Echoing Anwar, the agriculture adviser to the 2007-08 interim government said the government must negotiate with international organisations on the basis of its own need assessment to develop the agriculture sector.
   The NATP, which looks to increase efficiency and effectiveness of agricultural research and extension systems, was framed during Karim’s tenure as the adviser.
   At the meeting with agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury last week, the WB stressed the need for expediting amendments to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council Act 1996.
   ‘The delay in making amendments to the BARC Act is affecting the implementation of the Sponsored Public Good Research Component of the project which accounts for 20 per cent of base costs,’ said an official quoting the WB presentation made at the meeting.
   MK Anwar opposed the amendments to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council. ‘World Bank does not want BARC to coordinate all development and research activities in agriculture sector.’
   Former finance adviser to the caretaker government Akbar Ali Khan said the government should undertake innovative projects in the agriculture sector, but everything should not be done in accordance with the suggestions of the donor agencies.
   ‘All projects in the agriculture sector are old…We should initiate new projects where we can take support from international organisations, like World Bank. But we should not follow all suggestions of the lending agencies,’ Akbar said.
   The project coordination unit is yet to develop a comprehensive strategy and action plan for the formation and mobilisation of about 15,000 CIGs as planned to deliver project support and benefit farmers in the targeted upazilas. Initially, the agriculture ministry has selected 120 upazilas for the NATP interventions, according to official records.
   World Bank’s past role in Bangladesh agriculture asking the governments to close down Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation and not to give subsidies to farmers made economists sceptic about its real agenda behind the new project.
   Despite its declining share in GDP, agriculture still accounts for about 21 per cent of gross domestic product, employs around 50 per cent of the total labour force and feeds around 140 million people of the country.

Source: The Daily New Age, 13 October 2009

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