Rural development is key to Africa's prosperity, yet it has been undervalued by Governments, international lenders and policy advisers, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said in a paper released today, calling for increased investment in the field.
"Boosting agriculture and building around it a strong rural economy is crucial for Africa. Done right, it would create millions of much needed jobs, as well as wealth, inclusion, food security, crisis resilience, and social and political peace," ILO Deputy Director-General for Field Operations and Partnerships, Gilbert Houngbo wrote in a commentary.
"A key lesson from ILO rural work is recognizing that rural communities have much potential, and that investment can empower them through integrated approaches. This should start with basic physical and social infrastructures such as roads, energy, education and health facilities. Investments should also target relevant skills development and entrepreneurship support, including through cooperatives and innovative financial mechanisms."
He said the failure to recognize the value of rural areas has resulted in per capita food production barely growing over the last 50 years, with agriculture representing only 17 per cent of Sub-Sahara's gross domestic product (GDP), and its already low productivity even declining.
"It's not surprising that over 60 per cent of rural people live in extreme poverty, and many flee to the cities, where they usually swell the ranks of the unemployed or the informal workforce," Mr. Houngbo wrote, stressing the need to ensure proper occupational safety and health, social protection and basic rights.
He noted that the reality is not lost on African leaders and the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month, which had the agricultural transformation as its lead theme.
Promoting rural areas also means combining agriculture with industrial and service activities to stimulate synergies and diversification, and to seize new opportunities in information and communication technology (ICT), tourism, bio-technologies, environmental protection and renewable energy generation, for instance.
Integrated approaches should include promoting links between public and private stakeholders, developing rural workers' and entrepreneurs' structures, encouraging dialogue between them and with the authorities, and giving capacities and a voice to youth and women, who are the true engines of rural innovation and growth.
"All important is disseminating the many winning practices," Mr. Houngbo wrote, citing the Songhaï Centres in Benin where productive enterprises run activities in farming, processing, handicrafts, marketing, energy production, irrigation, repair, recycling and other services, with strong emphasis on holistic approaches, self-reliance, research and training.
Another good example is the Rwandan Telecentre Network, with rural centres that provide information technology (IT) services but also serve as delivery hubs where individuals, companies and government can advertise, sell, buy and exchange products and services from e-training to banking, insurance, taxation, healthcare, electricity and information.
The ILO has actively engaged in rural work since the 1920s, with growing attention to Africa.
In 2008, the International Labour Conference adopted a resolution on Rural Employment for Poverty Reduction, which led to the ILO Rural Employment and Decent Work Programme (2009-13), and the declaration in 2013 of decent work in the rural economy as an area of critical importance for ILO.