While the number of rural poor in the world has actually declined sharply since the late 1980s, the decline is due almost entirely to gains made in East and Southeast Asia, particularly China. Despite these gains, rural poverty remains a stubborn challenge in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa: three-quarters of the poor in these areas are rural, and “the proportion is barely declining, despite urbanization,” says the report. In the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the majority of the extremely poor live in urban areas.
The number of undernourished people in the world has also declined slightly from its historic high of 2009, after a doubling of international food prices between 2006 and 2008 left a staggering one billion hungry. (However, food prices recently passed 2008’s historic high point, and some have argued they may have been a factor in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.) From a high of one billion, the world’s hungry have since decreased to 925 million, a figure that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization nonetheless calls “unacceptably high.” The current rate of decline is far from meeting the MDG target of halving the number of people who suffer from hunger by 2015, says the IFAD report, and with continuing population growth and resource and energy scarcities, they predict little change in the number of hungry worldwide.
Meeting Rising Demand, Sustainably
“Feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 70 percent increase in global food production,” says the report. To do this, the report calls for more sustainable agricultural intensification driven by small-holder farmers. “Small-holder agriculture…can offer rural people a route out of poverty just as they can offer the world a solution to meeting its future food needs,” says IFAD President Kanayo Nwanze, in the trailer.
Increasing global agricultural production must be done “in the context of a weakened natural resource base, energy scarcities, and climate change,” says the report. This will require more efficient use of water, less waste, and a shift towards more resilient crops. It will also require linking scientific knowledge with local farmer knowledge in order to create a sustainable, context-specific approach. The report recommends a sustainable small-holder agriculture system that gives rural people incentives to protect their environment, while helping them adapt to climate change.
Providing Economic Opportunities
Since 80 percent of rural households “farm to some extent,” agricultural intensification will be “a primary engine of rural growth and poverty reduction,” says IFAD, especially in the poorest countries. In a statement to announce the launch of the report, Nwanze said, “rather than romanticizing the concept of lifting poor rural women, men, and children above the poverty line, like a plague that can be eradicated by charity and humanitarian gestures, we are advocating the proactive creation of vibrant rural economies.”
But lifting the one billion rural people out of poverty is not just about stimulating rural farm economies, says the report; it also means creating opportunities in the rural non-farm economy to minimize the risk of economic shocks that drive people into poverty in the first place. While agriculture remains central to rural economies, urbanization, globalization, improved information systems, and growing investments in renewable energy all offer opportunities for growth in rural, non-farm economies. Helping rural people take advantage of these opportunities will require multiple investments, says the report: in education to improve the capabilities of rural youth; in infrastructure and social services to make rural areas better places to live; and in governance mechanisms and collective organizing so that rural people can better represent their own interests.
“Robust action is required now to address the many factors that perpetuate the marginalization of rural economies,” says IFAD. “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 fulfill their aspirations.”
Sources: AFP, FAO, IFAD, United Nations, The Washington Post.