Focus on small-scale farming: food or jobs?

In development work for agriculture, the obsession with production and food security is missing the story about enterprise and jobs.

News, 31 May 2012

The Provocation seminar series
The Provocation seminar series

About the series: Making markets work for small-scale farmers?

Provocation #6: Rural youth today, farmers tomorrow?

The latest ‘provocation’ from IIED and Hivos, held in The Hague last week (24 May), began by asking what the development community can do to support rural youth. And for consultant Felicity Proctor, the answer is clear: “we need to move from agriculture and talking about food security and productivity to enterprise, business and a decent living for many of the rural populations.”

A key employer

Speaking on broad trends in small-scale farming and youth, Proctor emphasised the fact that in many developing countries, agriculture is not just about growing food, it’s about working for a living. “We have to face the reality that globally, agriculture represents well over 40 per cent of the employment share in many regions,” said Proctor — up to 60 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Even if the proportion of rural and urban populations change through urbanisation, the absolute numbers of people in rural areas of many developing countries is still rising and agriculture will continue to be a major source of jobs over the coming decades.

This is particularly true for rural youth, many of whom begin their working life in family-based farming. Most work informally — often in multiple low-paid, low-skilled, insecure and hazardous jobs — and as such, their livelihoods are not adequately reflected in government and development policy and practice. “The big movement of people into more vulnerable and part-time jobs in the informal sector is largely unknown or not understood and so policy remains blind to it,” said IIED researcher Bill Vorley.

Answering to the needs and realities of young people in rural areas requires governments and development actors alike to tackle the issue of employment — including informal work — head on. Researcher Xiaobing Wang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the provocation participants that there is much to be learnt from China in this regard.

Lessons from China

Over the past thirty years, China has achieved enormous growth in agriculture — dominated by small-scale farming — and successfully reduced poverty in many rural areas. How? In large part, this is because the country’s leaders recognised early on the importance of creating labour markets that support rural youth to move out of agricultural production. A combination of investment in land and tax reform, infrastructure, social services, technology and education has allowed an increasing number of young people to diversify their employment activities.

Today, a large proportion of rural youth do little or no agricultural work, said Wang, adding that: “In many small-scale farming households, younger family members do not work a single day on the farm.”

Taking the long view is the surest route to successfully supporting rural youth, according to Proctor. She argued that by planning rural transformation and change over the long term, looking at the role of small- and medium-sized rural towns in industrialisation and diversification against a background of increasing agricultural productivity, China has enabled a large proportion of small-scale producers to move out of farming. Importantly, this has in turn allowed those farmers that are left — millions of them — to develop a more business-like approach to agriculture. “[China’s approach] has turned farming into a professional, economic opportunity that people want to go in to,” said Proctor.

Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia to a degree, has not had this strategic framework for rural transformation. The result is burgeoning rural populations that must cope with decreasing farm size and little or no alternative economic opportunities. “One of the things these countries need to learn [from China] is to have this long-term plan of infrastructure and education alongside supporting non-farm economic activities so that people can have a diversified occupation,” concluded Proctor.

Find out more — read our latest HIV/ IIED briefings

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