Positive news for world's poor

By Kanayo F Nwanze
IFAD President

What would your life be like if you were one of the 1.4 billion women, men and children who live in extreme poverty?

Chances are you would live in a rural area, as do 70 per cent of the world's extremely poor people.

Like Li Guimin from China, you would worry about the exodus of young people from your community as they seek opportunities but likely face worse poverty in distant cities.

Like Shazia Bibi from Pakistan, you might wonder if your garlic can compete at the market with lower priced imports and whether you will earn enough to pay your children's school fees and buy your heart medicine.

And like Ribita Iobete, a farmer in Kiribati, you would be concerned about the shrinking size of your coconuts due to intrusions of seawater - an ominous repercussion of climate change in a country where ''high ground'' is just two metres above sea level.

But there is good news, and it is being discussed at meetings in Canberra this week. A new report issued by the International Fund for Agricultural Development reveals that more than 350 million rural people have pulled themselves out of extreme poverty over the last 10 years. The percentage of the world's rural inhabitants living on less than $1.20 a day has dropped from nearly half to about one third.

East Asia has accounted for much of the progress. Standouts are China and other emerging economies such as Vietnam, where the number of extremely poor people in rural areas fell by two thirds from 365 million to 117 million. So did the rate of extreme poverty, which declined from 44 to 15 per cent.

But poverty remains pervasive, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Though its rate of rural poverty has fallen slightly in the last decade, it is still above 60 per cent. And not far from Australia's own shores, South Asia is home to half of the world's one billion extremely poor rural people.

Yet change is under way in rural areas, giving rise to hope while also exposing challenges.

These include increasingly volatile food prices, which complicate life for rural people as both producers and buyers of food. Other emerging threats include deterioration of natural resources, growing competition for land and water, and as Australians know only too well increasingly severe weather events worsened by climate change.

But good things are happening too. As cities expand and the world becomes more urbanised, the demand for high-value food is growing, expanding markets for farmers.

And while agriculture continues to drive rural growth engaging four-fifths of rural households worldwide at some level technological advancements and changes in the global economy are also creating jobs off the farm. The accelerating search for renewable energy sources around the world only increases the potential for growth.

All of this creates opportunities for poor rural women and men to lift themselves out of poverty and create a future for their children. But making the most of it requires policies and investments that are both market oriented and environmentally sustainable.

For starters, governments and the international community need to reverse the long-standing neglect of rural development. We need to improve governance in rural areas and create an economic environment that will allow small holder farmers to grow both food and their businesses.

We need to invest in rural infrastructure and in building the skills of rural people so they can exploit new opportunities in agricultural markets or find jobs in non-farm industries. If we help them strengthen their collective capabilities, they will be able to support each other in managing risks, learning new techniques to improve productivity and marketing their products.

And we need to invest in youth. In developing countries, young people aged 15 to 24 make up 20 per cent of the population. In rural areas, many of them are growing up on small holder farms. We must invest in those young, creative minds so they can develop the skills to run their farms like small businesses.

Anyone who has spent any time with farmers in developing countries knows that they are dynamic, innovative people whose hard work will ultimately lead the way to development and prosperity.

At stake is the security of the global food supply. Agricultural production must increase 70 per cent by 2050, and output in developing countries will have to double, if we are to keep food on the table for the nine billion people expected on earth by then.

I have no doubt that Li, Shazia and Ribita are up to the challenge. Are the rest of us?

Originally published in The Canberra Times