With four fifths of Africa's poorest living in the countryside, the battle against poverty will only be won through "accelerated rural development", the president of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) told a conference in Dar es Salaam on Thursday.
Poverty must be tackled at its roots, in the rural areas, where there is a need to go beyond social interventions in health and education "to touch upon economic development processes in the countryside" that involve the poor themselves, Lennart Bage added.
Bage laid down the challenge for governments and donors to recognise that rural economy and rural society, though not seen as fashionable by many decision-makers, are core issues in development and poverty reduction.
"We have to ensure that the development effort is renewed, that it recognises the absolutely critical dimension of rural poverty, and that it without economic growth among poor people in rural areas we will not significantly reduce poverty in large areas in the world - and especially not in Africa," he added.
Bage made the comments at the opening session of a ministerial workshop on Poverty Reduction and Rural Growth in Eastern and Southern Africa. he added that public expenditure figures coming from that region showed a need for increased commitment to these areas from the countries themselves.
The IFAD president said that effective poverty reduction - as called for in the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), an integrated strategic framework for the socio-economic development of the continent, and poverty reduction initiatives being developed in the region - would require greater empowerment of poor rural people, concern for gender issues and collaboration with the private sector.
Bage also expressed concern about the organisation of international agricultural markets, specifically with regard to subsidies.
"The current system systematically blocks many avenues of economic development among poor rural people," he said. "It has to be changed."
"If trade is going to be as important as aid in reducing poverty, it has to be trade giving developing countries access to markets instead of using them as dumping grounds for surpluses fuelled by subsidies," Bage added.
Tanzania's Vice-President, Dr Ali Mohamed Shein, speaking at the opening session, also highlighted the issue of agricultural subsidies in developed nations impeding efforts to combat rural poverty.
However, he stressed that Tanzania was making progress and is developing an integrated strategy to combat poverty, through the National Poverty Eradication Strategy that looks at long-term development goals and perspectives.
The IFAD conference on Thursday and Friday brought together ministers, donors, aid agencies and representatives from international organisations from the region.
According to the agency, mandated by the UN to help combat hunger and poverty, the conference is a response to the Monterrey Consensus and the Millennium Summit goal of halving the number of poor in the world by 2015.
"Discussions will include a review of national rural development and poverty reduction strategies and means of increasing investment and financing for sound and sustainable rural development," it added.