26 December 2013

Gambia: Rural Poverty

This Column is meant to monitor and report on issues that concern the people of the rural area in terms of how they are facilitating or hindering their development. In this edition, we shall bring to the attention of our readers what need to be done and how to address rural poverty. Donkey cartes Transporting patients to nearby health centre 11 kilometres away Research has shown that poverty in The Gambia has its roots in slow economic growth and uneven income distribution. Rural poverty, in particular, is the result of a poor natural resource base and farmers' dependence on groundnuts as their principal source of income. The primary causes of rural poverty in The Gambia include: -Low and decreasing soil fertility -Low agricultural and labour productivity -Poor access to productive assets such as land and water -Poorly functioning input and output markets -Low prices on world markets for products such as groundnuts and certain types of rice -Poorly functioning rural institutions, including credit institutions, and lack of basic social services -Irregular rains that frequently cause crop losses and yields that fluctuate as much as 40 per cent from one harvest to the next Poor rural people generally produce for home consumption and sell any surpluses at disappointing prices.

Poor farmers are caught in a vicious circle of risk aversion, limited use of inputs, low productivity and low income. What needs to be done, and how? Ten years into the new millennium, the challenges of addressing rural poverty, while also feeding a growing world population in a context of increasing environmental scarcities and climate change, loom large. Robust action is required now to address the many factors that perpetuate the marginalization of rural economies.

It needs to enable rural women, men and youth to harness new opportunities to participate in economic growth, and develop ways for them to better deal with risk. Above all, this action needs to turn rural areas from backwaters into places where the youth of today will want to live and will be able to fulfil their aspirations.

How can all this be achieved? There is of course no simple answer. Countries vary profoundly in their level of economic development, their growth patterns, their breadth and depth of rural poverty, and the size and structure of their agricultural and rural sectors. Within countries, different areas can vary greatly, resulting in widely differing levels of opportunity for growth. As a result, there can be no generic blueprints for rural development and rural poverty reduction.

The areas of focus, the issues to address and the roles of different actors will all vary in different contexts. Nevertheless, there is a need to go beyond narrow or rigidly sequential sectoral approaches to rural growth. Agriculture continues to play a major role in the economic development of many countries, and to represent a major source of opportunities to move out of poverty for large numbers of rural women, men and young people - particularly those who can make it a 'sound business'. In addition, in all developing regions smallholder farmers face major - if profoundly different - challenges.

A focus on agriculture, aimed at assisting them to address these challenges, must remain a major thrust of efforts to reduce poverty and promote economic development alike. In all circumstances, the ultimate aim must be the development of smallholder farming systems that are productive, integrated into dynamic markets (for environmental services as well as food and agricultural products), and environmentally sustainable and resilient to risks and shocks.

All three elements are essential features of a viable smallholder agriculture, particularly as a livelihood strategy for tomorrow's generation. A vibrant agricultural sector as well as a variety of new factors can also drive the expansion of the non-farm rural economy, in a wide range of country circumstances.

In order to broaden the opportunities for rural poverty reduction and economic growth, there is need for a broad approach to rural growth and emphasis on the larger rural non-farm economy. A focus on these two areas - smallholder agriculture and the rural non-farm economy- requires particular attention to, and increasing investment in four issues:

- Improving the overall environment of rural areas to make them places where people can find greater opportunities and face fewer risks, and where rural youth can build a future. Greater investment and attention are needed in infrastructure and utilities: particularly roads, electricity, water supply and renewable energy.

Also important are rural services, including education, health care, financial services, communication and information and communication technology services. Good governance too is critical to the success of all efforts to promote rural growth and reduce poverty, including developing a more sustainable approach to agricultural intensification.

-Reducing the level of risk that poor rural people face and helping them to improve their risk management capacity needs to become a central, cross-cutting element within a pro-poor rural development agenda.

It needs to drive support both to agriculture - and sustainable intensification reflects this concern - and to the rural non-farm economy. It involves developing or stimulating the market to provide new risk-reducing technologies and services for smallholders and poor rural people. It requires an expansion of social protection, and it needs to strengthen the individual and collective capabilities of rural women, men and youth.

-Advancing individual capabilities needs far more attention in the rural development agenda. Productivity, dynamism and innovation in the rural economy depends on there being a skilled, educated population. Rural women, men, youth and children all need to develop the skills and knowledge to take advantage of new economic opportunities in agriculture, in the rural non-farm economy, or in the job market beyond the rural areas.

Investment is particularly needed in post-primary education, in technical and vocational skills development, and in reoriented higher education institutes for agriculture.

-Strengthening the collective capabilities of rural people can give them the confidence, security and power to overcome poverty. Membership-based organizations have a key role to play in helping rural people reduce risk, learn new techniques and skills, manage individual and collective assets, and market their produce.

They also negotiate the interests of people in their interactions with the private sector or government, and can help to hold them accountable. Many organizations have problems of governance, management or representation, and yet they usually represent the interests of poor rural people better than any outside party can.

They need strengthening to become more effective, and more space needs to be made for them to influence policy. In the aftermath of the food crisis, the international donor community has taken a number of initiatives to support developing countries' efforts to promote smallholder agriculture.

It has also signalled a commitment to support developing countries' efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But investment in agriculture and the rural non-farm economy remains well below needed levels, and the momentum of these recent initiatives must be maintained.

The proposed agenda in this report responds to the growing international concerns, while offering up ideas for concrete initiatives. Increasing investments in the areas highlighted in this report - some of which have been badly neglected in recent years - can support the piloting of new approaches and ways of working as a route for learning, promoting policy analysis and reform, and financing the scaling up of successful small-scale initiatives.

In addition, many developing and recently developed countries have grappled with the issues addressed in this report. There is, therefore, enormous scope for increased levels of knowledge-sharing between developing countries. There are today approximately one billion poor rural people in the world. Yet there are good reasons for hope that rural poverty can be reduced substantially, if new opportunities for rural growth are nurtured, and the risk environment improved.

This report identifies an agenda for action around a broad approach to rural growth, which needs to be appropriated and adapted to different countries' needs and local contexts. However, the report also makes it clear that implementing this agenda requires 'joined-up' government across different ministries, and a breaking down of some traditional distinctions between social and economic policies and programmes.

It also requires a collective effort, including new partnerships and accountabilities, and new ways of working between governments, the private sector, civil society and rural people's organizations, with the international development community playing a supporting or facilitating role as needed. If all of these stakeholders want it enough, rural poverty can be substantially reduced.

What is at stake is not only improving the present for one billion rural people and the prospects for food security for all, but also the rural world and the opportunities within it that tomorrow's rural generation will inherit. The solution for addressing rural poverty emphasised that "Greater investment and attention are needed in infrastructure and utilities: particularly roads, electricity, water supply and renewable energy.

Also important are rural services, including education, health care, financial services, communication and information and communication technology services. Good governance too is critical to the success of all efforts to promote rural growth and reduce poverty, including developing a more sustainable approach to agricultural intensification". This columnist will tour the country side and report his finding on the above.

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