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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Assessing the impacts of retail supply chains on food security and agricultural sustainability in the global South : the case of Walmart in Nicaragua Elder, Sara Dawn Whitfield


Multinational food retailers are expanding in size and reach, gaining buyer-driven power to govern global agrifood production and consumption. Alongside a rise in private governance is a growing belief by governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that corporate social responsibility (CSR) will be effective at achieving rural development goals for smallholder farmers and their families in the global South. This dissertation investigates the on-the-ground impacts of rising corporate governance for household food security and agricultural sustainability, and how and why the particular terms of farmer engagement in retail-led supply chains mediate these impacts, through the case of Walmart in Nicaragua. The analysis is based on nine months of original fieldwork in Nicaragua in 2013, including 65 interviews with produce sector stakeholders and a survey of 250 smallholder vegetable farmers, and draws on theoretical traditions in the private governance and development studies literatures. The results show that CSR is ineffective at advancing food security and agricultural sustainability in Nicaragua. Walmart’s CSR program is designed to achieve business not development goals, and farmers are exiting the Walmart supply chain due to business practices they perceive as unfair, leaving Walmart unable to exert control over its supply chains. Cooperative organization is not sufficient for improving the terms of farmer engagement in Walmart supply chains, particularly for the most resource-poor farmers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in some cases worsening farmer vulnerability by linking them to buyers unwilling to adapt to local needs. Instead, voluntary public standards appear to be filling a gap that private standards do not address in supporting local farmers to improve their agricultural practices. The evidence presented in the dissertation extends understanding of why corporate social responsibility is not in many cases an effective development strategy. The findings challenge theories of private governance effectiveness, showing that multinational retail CSR programs in some cases fail to increase control over suppliers, and highlighting the agency and dynamism of smallholder farmers and governments in the global South. The findings also point to practical considerations in the design of policy to promote food security and agricultural sustainability in rural areas.

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