A Muong ethnic woman farmer in Viet Nam.

Improved connectivity, not urban migration, is the best way to help people in world’s rural areas develop

New technologies can bring better jobs and a city quality of life to rural populations, lifting millions out of poverty

New approaches made possible through improved access and Internet connectivity can raise the standard of living for approximately 3.4 billion people living in rural areas, without them having to migrate to cities, according to the newly released 2021 World Social Report “Reconsidering Rural Development.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, together with already persistent high levels of poverty and inequalities, are threatening to stall progress for the world’s rural populations. But the pandemic has also proven that new technologies can enable rural populations to flourish, ending the rural-urban divide.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the new technologies opened up new opportunities for rural development. “Opportunities exist to build a greener, more inclusive and resilient future. The experience of the pandemic has shown, for example, that where high-quality Internet connectivity is coupled with flexible working arrangements, many jobs that were traditionally considered to be urban can be performed in rural areas too.”

The rise of new digital technologies provides an opportunity to bridge the rural-urban divide, by providing rural populations with access to digital finance, precision tools for better crop yields as well as jobs that can be done remotely.

Some 67 per cent of the populations of low-income countries and 60 per cent of lower-middle-income countries are rural. About 80 per cent of those living below the international poverty line reside in rural areas, and about one-fifth of rural people live in extreme poverty – a rate that is four times higher than for the urban population – and have less access to education, health and other essential services.

Rural women, older persons, as well as indigenous people continue to experience discrimination when it comes to land rights and employment. Rural areas contain most of the planet’s natural capital, which is currently being depleted and degraded. Deforestation and unsustainable land practices have greatly contributed to climate change and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

The report offers new strategies to ensure that the rural population — nearly half of the world’s people — is not left behind as the world escalates efforts to boost the economy, reduce inequalities and tackle the climate crisis. The report calls for improving the lives of people where they are, to improve rural standards of living.

Extending urban benefits to rural areas

Called “In Situ Urbanization,” the approach seeks to ensure that the rural population is able to enjoy the same standard of living as the urban population, without the negative side effects of unsustainable urbanization. In Sri Lanka, Japan and China, the report found examples where improved access to education and health care, increased investment in rural infrastructure and reduced income disparity between rural and urban areas have led to better living conditions of rural populations.

The report notes that in China, India and Indonesia, while rural poverty fell between 2000s and 2015, rural inequality increased. To drive social progress in rural areas, addressing inequalities must go hand in hand with efforts to reduce poverty levels. This includes new land reform policies, expanded social protection as well as the abrogation of discriminatory laws that effectively tackle the inequalities that rural women, indigenous people and other vulnerable populations experience.

Land degradation and the emergence of zoonotic diseases

According to the report, the change of natural habitats to agricultural land has led to 60 per cent to 70 per cent of total biodiversity loss and the loss of forests and wilderness is credited with the rise of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that approximately 31 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions is directly related to agriculture and land-use changes. Policies would need to be put in place to build resilience and reduce the vulnerability of rural livelihoods to climate change. The report recommends taking steps to develop crop varieties that are less land-intensive, practicing mixed farming and switching to the circular economy.

Additionally, a water deficit of about 30 per cent is expected by 2030 and nearly 95 per cent of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050 if current patterns of rural development continue. Measures that promote the sustainable use of resources as well as food security must be considered.

Boosting the agricultural sector

Countries that are home to at least 501 million agricultural workers are at risk of not achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target of doubling agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale farmers by 2030. The report acknowledges that more action is needed to boost agricultural productivity by improving infrastructure, using appropriate technology, providing incentives and increasing investments. It is also important to focus on agricultural models that are country specific and are geared towards supporting smallholders. Diversification is also key to a rural transformation. Expanding non-farm activities — a potential source of income for young people — should be part of the new strategies.

The World Social Report is a flagship publication of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs on major social development issues. For more information and to access the report, visit http://www.bit.ly/wsr2021

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