How the World Bank misquoted ActionAid on buffer stocks

ActionAid was founded as an international NGO in 1972, working to reduce poverty and promote human rights. Its headquarters are in Johannesburg, South Africa and under one of its main areas of concern, ‘land and climate’, it has produced a number of reports related to food security.

After severe food shortages at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, ActionAid produced a report in June 2011 entitled: ‘No more food crises: The Indispensable role of food reserves’. The report stated the following:

   We believe sustained investment in a new generation of clearly mandated, well governed, and efficient buffer and/or emergency food reserves – involving the participation and oversight of smallholder farmers and civil society organizations (CSOs) – can shield poor people and effectively help to:

  •  stabilise and smooth out volatile food prices
  •  ensure emergency food supplies
  •  foster small-scale agricultural production and longer-term rural development.

It also made the point that:

Integrating national reserves into regional food reserves can also ensure more reliable access to food supplies during emergencies and foster cooperative arrangements during food price crises.

It developed at some length many of the arguments in favour of buffer stocks that have been made in our own work.

In one sense it is reassuring to know that ActionAid was carefully arguing the case for buffer stocks a decade ago. What is less reassuring is the way that so many organisations have failed to pick up on what ActionAid suggested or have ignored the general thrust of what it was saying.

In the following year (2012) the World Bank produced a report entitled ‘Using Public Foodgrain Stocks to Enhance Food Security’, It quoted the ActionAid report in the following way:

   Buffer stocks are expensive. They are a recurrent expenditure for national budgets. The cost of holding grain stocks can be as high as 15 to 20 percent of the value of the stock per year (Action Aid 2011)

This is a perfectly accurate quotation, and probably represents the one aspect of the ActionAid report that we would question, on the grounds that a system replenishing stocks when prices are low and releasing them onto the market when prices are high will ensure that buffer stocks are not as costly as is often supposed. But what the World Bank report omits to make clear is that ActionAid was in favour of buffer stocks, whether or not they were a costly investment, and was calling for more to be introduced. The very title of the report makes this perfectly clear.

So ActionAid said that buffer stocks were costly but worth it. And then the World Bank managed to quote ActionAid saying that buffer stocks were costly. Selective quotation is the best form of distortion, since you don’t put words into another person’s mouth. But by taking words out of context, you manage to change what’s being said just as much as you would through direct misquotation. Judge for yourselves by reading ActionAid’s report on the indispensability of food reserves which is available online here.