Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

Resources for Speakers on Global Issues

Rural Poverty

Next steps: What needs to be done?

Ten years into the new millennium, the challenges of addressing rural poverty, while also feeding a growing world population in a context of increasing environmental scarcities and climate change, loom large. Robust action is required now to address the many factors that perpetuate the marginalization of rural economies. It needs to enable rural women, men and youth to harness new opportunities to participate in economic growth, and develop ways for them to better deal with risk. Above all, this action needs to turn rural areas from backwaters into places where the youth of today will want to live and will be able to fulfil their aspirations. How can all this be achieved? There is of course no simple answer. Countries vary profoundly in their level of economic development, their growth patterns, their breadth and depth of rural poverty, and the size and structure of their agricultural and rural sectors. Within countries, different areas can vary greatly, resulting in widely differing levels of opportunity for growth. As a result, there can be no generic blueprints for rural development and rural poverty reduction. The areas of focus, the issues to address and the roles of different actors will all vary in different contexts.

Nevertheless, there is a need to go beyond narrow or rigidly sequential sectoral approaches to rural growth. Agriculture continues to play a major role in the economic development of many countries, and to represent a major source of opportunities to move out of poverty for large numbers of rural women, men and young people – particularly those who can make it a ‘sound business’. In addition, in all developing regions smallholder farmers face major – if profoundly different – challenges. A focus on agriculture, aimed at assisting them to address these challenges, must remain a major thrust of efforts to reduce poverty and promote economic development alike. In all circumstances, the ultimate aim must be the development of smallholder farming systems that are productive, integrated into dynamic markets (for environmental services as well as food and agricultural products), and environmentally sustainable and resilient to risks and shocks. All three elements are essential features of a viable smallholder agriculture, particularly as a livelihood strategy for tomorrow’s generation. A vibrant agricultural sector as well as a variety of new factors can also drive the expansion of the non-farm rural economy, in a wide range of country circumstances. In order to broaden the opportunities for rural poverty reduction and economic growth, there is need for a broad approach to rural growth and emphasis on the larger rural non-farm economy. A focus on these two areas – smallholder agriculture and the rural non-farm economy – requires particular attention to, and increasing investment in, four issues:

Muhammad Naveed

Muhammad Naveed, 22, is from a large family in Akhoon Bandi, Pakistan. Five married siblings live separately, the three brothers having their own share of the family’s land. Four younger unmarried brothers, including Muhammad, live with their parents and farm together. Although agriculture remains central to the extended family’s survival, it does not produce enough to meet their living costs. The expense of hiring tractors, transporting produce to market, purchasing inputs, and occasionally extra labour, all eat into slim profits – but the “biggest problem” says Muhammad, “is that of water.” Irrigation is extremely labour-intense – “we work day and night on irrigation” – and their non-irrigated fields produce nothing when rainfall is low.

The family have two buffaloes, and a few cows and goats, largely looked after by Muhammad’s mother. The milk of one buffalo is sold; that of the second is for the family, including the children of the married brothers. The latter all have other jobs as well as farming: two as drivers, one as a tailor. Muhammad and his older brother Sheraz, still living at home, also take waged work when they can. Sheraz, like his father, finds occasional work with local masons and has tried for a job on the railways.

Muhammad worked in a milk shop in Karachi for a year, but city living expenses eroded any savings. He then got work as a driver and managed to save a little: “I was able to save about 4,000 rupees… I would keep 1,500 rupees for my own expenses and the rest I sent home to my father.” The two youngest brothers are still studying. With the money he made from the sale of another buffalo, Muhammad did a training course in plumbing and invested in a ‘middleman’ who is trying to find him work abroad. He has heard nothing so far, but says, “I have also applied to the army, and also the police.”

Despite their need for off-farm work, Muhammad is convinced that farming is indispensable, and preferable to unreliable and exploitative waged labour: “We want to continue [farming]. Without it we cannot run our household… And it’s one’s own work and so one works hard… When we do labour outside… they stand on our heads to make sure we work… They also give salary at their own discretion… Sometimes they give it after a month. Sometimes 10 to 15 days after the month-end. The household is not run this way…” He concludes: “That’s why working outside is very difficult. We are better at home. We are better off farming.”

In the aftermath of the food crisis, the international donor community has taken a number of initiatives to support developing countries’ efforts to promote smallholder agriculture. It has also signalled a commitment to support developing countries’ efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But investment in agriculture and the rural non-farm economy remains well below needed levels, and the momentum of these recent initiatives must be maintained. The proposed agenda in this report responds to the growing international concerns, while offering up ideas for concrete initiatives. Increasing investments in the areas highlighted in this report – some of which have been badly neglected in recent years – can support the piloting of new approaches and ways of working as a route for learning, promoting policy analysis and reform, and financing the scaling up of successful small-scale initiatives. In addition, many developing and recently developed countries have grappled with the issues addressed in this report. There is, therefore, enormous scope for increased levels of knowledge-sharing between developing countries. There are today approximately one billion poor rural people in the world. Yet there are good reasons for hope that rural poverty can be reduced substantially, if new opportunities for rural growth are nurtured, and the risk environment improved. This report identifies an agenda for action around a broad approach to rural growth, which needs to be appropriated and adapted to different countries’ needs and local contexts. However, the report also makes it clear that implementing this agenda requires ‘joined-up’ government across different ministries, and a breaking down of some traditional distinctions between social and economic policies and programmes. It also requires a collective effort, including new partnerships and accountabilities, and new ways of working between governments, the private sector, civil society and rural people’s organizations, with the international development community playing a supporting or facilitating role as needed. If all of these stakeholders want it enough, rural poverty can be substantially reduced. What is at stake is not only improving the present for one billion rural people and the prospects for food security for all, but also the rural world and the opportunities within it that tomorrow’s rural generation will inherit.