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Young researchers put rural transformation under the spotlight

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash.

During the 7-8th of June 2018, young researchers met at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala to discuss challenges related to rural development. A special focus was dedicated to topics such as agrarian change, migration and urban-rural connections and climate change. Vibrant discussions broke out of the research nitty-gritty, and resulted in insights about the future directions of rural development.  

The Young Researchers Meeting gathered 17 young and motivated individuals from different universities and institutions in Sweden, the UK, Kenya and Switzerland. The event was initiated already in 2014 by SLU-Global together with SIANI, and has increased in scope ever since: “In 2016, we received 25 abstracts. In only two years the interest has doubled – that’s really exciting!” said Margarita Cuadra, Head of Division for Rural Development, SLU.

The event kicked-off with a lunch seminar with Lisandro Martin from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). After that the young researchers discussed experiences from their ongoing and past projects during two full days. They also had the chance to obtain feedback and guidance for their future research ideas from their senior colleagues Grace Wong at Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC), Jesper Bjarnesen at Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) and Gert Nyberg at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

The meeting looked into three themes: Migration and urban-rural linkages, Agrarian change, and Climate change and resource degradation. Although separated, some issued were common for all themes – migration and theoretical perspectives.

Linking rural to urban

Movement in terms of rural out-migration has been on the agenda for a long time, with concerns raised for how it relates to future food production, urbanization pressure and livelihood possibilities. According to Patrick Boneza, Master student at SLU in Uppsala, the urbanization rate in Rwanda has more than doubled in the past two decades and is mainly dominated by youth moving from rural to urban areas.

Africa’s youthful population is already at 60% and growing. And with the decline of interest in agriculture as a career choice, the continent may face another layer of food security challenges in the future. Aspirations to improve livelihood and job opportunities are important driving forces for urbanization, but according to Hanna Sinare, Post-doc at SRC, research into the aspirations of youth and what makes agriculture an attractive career choice remains limited. Without this information, agricultural policies might fail to provide tangible effects on food security and rural development.

When it comes to migration, remittances (money sent back to the home-country from the location one has migrated to) play a significant part for development. In fact, remittances have outgrown international development aid in  terms of money transfer and were three times higher than development aid already in 2012. Remittances thus play a crucial role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and can also have a balancing effect on land use changes due to income diversification, according to Daniel Ospina, PhD at SRC.

Migration has an effect even at the household level. The term “feminization of agriculture” has become a buzz-word to describe prevalence of women in agricultural labor and their growing responsibilities as men migrate for higher paid jobs in the cities or abroad. However, Stephanie Leder, Post-doc at SLU in Uppsala, pointed out that feminization of agriculture is not to be taken as a synonym to gender empowerment – increased responsibilities don’t necessarily provide women with greater access to and control over resources or economy. She highlighted that the effects thus need to be analyzed through intersectionality, taking into account the interactions between different power structures such as class, gender, race and sexuality.

Framing power structures

Farmers in low-income countries are usually framed as vulnerable. Some of the researchers at the conference found this frustrating because this framing contributes to a perception that farmers have low development capacity. “Society, including farmers, consists of more and less vulnerable people. Even though many farmers in poor countries may be vulnerable, there will always be those who are more able to benefit from changes than others. In research and in policy analyses, we should try to look at the perspective of who wins and who loses,” commented Grace Wong, researcher at SRC who lead the discussions about agrarian change at the event. In fact, research has shown that vulnerability framing can have an effect on how policies are developed and what the outcome of them will be.

Jesper Bjarnesen, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute who lead the discussion around migration at the event, tapped into the same issue by pointing out that this is true also when it comes to migration and the different framings of migrants versus refugees. He argued that it is necessary to have intersectionality in mind in any work concerning social change: “Of course, there are going to be vulnerable people among the migrants too, and of course there are going to be well educated and capable people among the refugees. Being capable doesn’t mean you can’t be vulnerable and being vulnerable doesn’t mean you can’t be capable”.

In the afternoon of day two, the researchers got the chance to discuss their research in more detail. Gert Nyberg, researcher at SLU, lead the discussion around climate change and resource degradation where they discussed challenges of what legume species would be best intercropped for potato growth in Kenya, the production limitations of agroforestry systems, and the push and pull factors for urban-rural movement.

With so many different points of convergence at the event, the talks inevitably headed into interdisciplinarity. “We need the expertise within a field, because a forester can never do the work of an anthropologist and vice versa, but we also need the multi- and transdisciplinary dialogues. Experts need to meet and talk to each other to avoid silo thinking. That is how research can help to pave the way to sustainable development” concluded Gert Nyberg.