The world is younger than ever – 42% of people are under the age of 25. Almost 1 billion youth live in low-income countries and nearly half of them in rural communities. In many ways, unlocking the potential of rural youth is key to sustainable development. Rural Development Report 2019 by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) identifies development opportunities and key investment areas to empower youth on a global scale.
The three pillars of rural development
Productivity, connectivity and agency are key to effective rural development. Productivity is essential to social prosperity and depends on both worker’ skills and the quality of their environment. The new work reality requires a skill set that combines basic knowledge, like mathematics or scientific formulas, with cognitive and non-cognitive, like critical thinking, and the essential to social harmony and cooperation agreeableness, cultivation of social connections and responsiveness to external happenings. This skillset is necessary for keeping up with the rapid ongoing change of the digital era.
Connectivity may seem like an obvious factor to target. However, it is important to look at both digital and physical aspects of connectivity. Access to markets through infrastructure and mobile technology captures both of the aspects and provides a way to ample resources for skillset development.
Lastly, it is also crucial to pay attention to the sense of agency. Young people in rural areas often lack a sense of control over what’s happening in their lives. However, youth will only be able to drive change if they have the sense that they have the power to make a difference. Agency is closely linked to critical thinking and the ability to cooperate and should be prioritized in youth-centered development strategies.
Mind the aspiration-opportunity gap
Most of the rural youth live in the poorest countries on the planet. Every year 14 million young Africans enter productive age, and the majority live in remote areas. Globalization and digitalization mean that rural youth will have to find new paths for growth, opportunity and employment than of their parents. At the same time, the overflow of information that comes with the digital boom often means that rural youth have aspirations that outpace the opportunities in their countries. This gap should be the focus of rural development policy and investment.
The main factors hindering rural youth from self-sufficiency and independence are finance, land, gender inequality and lack of skills and individual capacity to drive change. It is crucial to identify, understand and tackle these obstacles. Furthermore, inclusive equitable policy and action are essential. Young women face gender-biased social norms, have lower education rates and are less likely to inherit the land. Tackling these hurdles is key to shaking off the triple burden of being rural, young and female.
So, how would a successful policy look like?
Rethinking investing in rural youth
Clearly, we need to think differently. IFAD heavily emphasizes the need to avoid two key errors. Firstly, using old solutions that ignore rapid demographic, digital, and social change. Secondly, channeling investment only to rural youth is not effective, often the actual problem lies in the lack of an overall enabling environment.
Naturally, every country will have their own ideal investment strategy. At the same time, investment strategies need to evaluate and consider the ability of the youth to realize economic opportunities. Is it possible for them to make the investment work within the existing structures and institutions? Do rural development frameworks have incentives and social support mechanisms designed with young people in mind?
Once the limitations and capacities of a given area have been identified, it is crucial to establish collaboration between different stakeholders. IFAD’s experts point out that many governments can successfully implement youth-related activities, such as sports and volunteering, but often fail to integrate young people in a wider structural transformation. Collaborating across sectors is key to avoiding such failures and can also increase the sense of agency among youth in rural communities.
How to approach rural transformation?
IFAD envisions that rural transformation will result in employment shift away from manual labor and subsistence agriculture. It is assumed that when productivity and capital input into the farming sector increase, young people will switch to off-farm wage-employment. Ultimately, this means that rural youth can engage in other aspects of the agricultural value chain, such as marketing, processing, packaging and transportation. Growing population, emerging markets, as well as faster and easier access to information all play into the hands of this trend. The challenge lies in how to implement policies that promote youth-inclusive societal transformation. Such policies need to be context-specific and bring modern quality education to rural areas, combining it with measures to create inclusive enabling conditions, tackling structural barriers linked to gender norms, age, and socioeconomic status.
Realizing the untapped potential
Responding to the assumption that infertile or degraded land can be the reason behind lagging development, the authors of the report carried out an assessment of the land’s agricultural capacity in areas with a high proportion of rural youth. According to the results, 67% of rural youth live in areas where agricultural land capacity is high, and only 7% live in areas where land capacity is low. These results show that for two-thirds of global youth development constraints are not physical and can be curbed by a suit of socio-economic measures that include education, equitable enabling environment and agricultural commercialization. In this sense, targeted investment in connectivity and agency can have a knock-on effect and are a good place to start.
For the other 7%, action has to focus on improving land productivity through agricultural inputs like fertilizer, access to information through technology and so on. Identifying these different needs among rural populations is a must for effective youth empowerment.
Rapid population growth, lack of access to markets and climate change don’t make the life of the rural youth easy. However, these challenges also bring many opportunities and we need to take every chance to improve the wellbeing of rural youth around the world. Once empowered, young people can drive sustainable social and economic change. We can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without them and, for sure, the rural youth will grab these opportunities if given the chance.