Rural transformation: Key to sustainable development

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, delivers a lecture about the future of aid on 17 February 2015 at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Rome-based United Nations rural development agency. Her appearance is part of the 38th session of the Governing Council, IFAD's annual meeting of Member States, which will highlight rural transformation as a key to sustainable development. Our friends at IFAD sent us this entry, to help set the context for Winnie Byanyima's lecture.

Byanyima's theme is timely, because 2015 represents a juncture for development. The process of defining new Sustainable Development Goals provides an opportunity to refocus policies, investments and partnerships for more inclusive, sustainable and people-centered development. Consultations on the post-2015 development agenda have already helped give shape to a shared vision: a world where extreme poverty has disappeared, everyone has access to adequate and nutritious food, decent jobs are available to all, and natural resources are preserved and restored.

Social and economic change

With that vision in mind, smallholder farmers have enormous potential to contribute to sustainable development and food security. Realizing this potential will require increasing productivity, as well as improving access of rural people to markets, finance, technology and information to build more diversified and resilient rural economies.

Poverty has multiple dimensions that go beyond low levels of income, consumption and material assets. This is why IFAD targets its investments towards rural transformation – a sustainable and comprehensive level of change that is social as well as economic.

In a world that continues to be beset by conflict and violence, the links between sustainable and equitable rural transformation and the building of peaceful communities and societies cannot be ignored. The same conditions that hamper rural transformation provide fertile ground for unrest and conflict. Addressing the adverse conditions that affect rural women and men will be central to building the peaceful and prosperous societies of tomorrow.

New commercial opportunities are arising for many smallholders as a result of higher food prices and the possibility of new partnerships between farmers’ organizations and private-sector entities. It will be important to leverage these opportunities in order to reverse a perceived disaffection among young people with agriculture as a profession, at a time when youth populations are at an all-time high in many developing countries. In particular, the organization of farmers has the potential to overcome traditional constraints in accessing productive assets, technology, finance, training and markets.

Diversified incomes, new opportunities

As the demand for rural goods and services continues to grow and opportunities continue to expand, rural people can enhance and diversify their incomes – provided that the right policies and investments are in place. Wider diversity of economic activities, as well as the use of modern technologies and innovations in production processes, are key features of rural transformation. So too is expanded access to commercial opportunities in modern supply chains.

Public institutions, along with development organizations such as IFAD, must play a leading role in increasing sustainability, innovation and scaling up of best practices. The following entry points will be critical:

  • Key public goods that increase connectivity between rural and urban areas, enabling rural people to expand their productivity and access to markets;
  • Inclusive and fair tenure systems that facilitate access to land, water, forests and other productive assets, supported by targeted programs that promote women’s access to these assets and raise women’s awareness of their legal rights;
  • Opportunities for young people to engage in productive activities and increase their assets as a means of enhancing their livelihood options; and,
  • Access to risk management mechanisms, inclusive social protection systems, and quality public education and health systems for rural communities.

Clearly, greater investment will be essential to achieving these goals, but so will greater commitment, improved governance linked to decentralization and inclusive institutions, better coordination and a people-centered approach that involves rural people themselves in all phases of development. Effecting sustainable and inclusive rural transformation, as opposed to just dispensing aid, is as ambitious as it is necessary.

Watch Winnie Byanyima's lecture live via webcast, Tuesday 17 February, 09.00 am CET: - send your questions via Twitter using #IFADgc.

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Rural transformation is smallholders farming sustainably. Image: IFAD

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