Responding to the realities of rural youth

News, 31 May 2012
Across the developing world, rural youth are turning their back on small-scale agriculture. Fed up with limited access to markets, assets finance and infrastructure in rural areas — and lured by the thought of better jobs elsewhere — young people are increasingly choosing a mobile livelihood, moving to and from bigger rural towns or cities and combining a series of income-generating activities, in both rural and urban areas.

The increased mobility of rural youth today means fewer farmers tomorrow, which could potentially both radically change the profile of small-scale agriculture and national and global food systems.  

It is not surprising then that policymakers, donors and researchers alike are asking themselves how they can plug the leak and make small-scale farming a competitive life choice for rural youth. A provocative seminar in The Hague last week, jointly organised by IIED and Hivos, heard a medley of stakeholders discuss how to make small-scale farming attractive enough to keep rural youth engaged. From ‘make farming more fun’ to ‘abolish the subsidies that skew markets against small-scale farmers’, there was no lack of suggestions on how to make young people stay in farming.

A mobile life

But perhaps more interesting is the idea, aired by more than one participant, that we shouldn’t be stopping rural youth from leaving their communities at all. “The issue of mobility is very important,” said Philippe Remy from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The usual donor approach is to try and ‘fix’ rural youth in villages. But this strategy fails time after time, said Remy, because if young people want to move, they move.

This is hardly a ‘new’ issue: if rural youth today are opting for a more mobile livelihood, leaving their villages in search of work, so too did many of their parents before them. Some went away, never to return. But others only left temporarily, returning after weeks, months or years away gaining new experiences and expertise. And, as many participants in the Hague provocation stated, that is why supporting mobility is so important: because if you can encourage the return of those that leave, they will bring back new skills and knowledge that can help enrich and enhance the whole community. 

Remy argued for a more flexible attitude to mobility: “We need to help [rural youth] to be more mobile and to help them come back and use the experience they have gained in the cities.” Others in the room agreed, and shared the various tactics they are pursuing to support rural youth to come and go as they need or want.

The ties that bind

“What we are trying to do in Niger…is to cultivate a [farming] spirit among young people so that even when they are forced to leave their villages they still appreciate life in rural areas… and whenever they feel they want to come back, they can,” said George Dixon Fernandez, president of International Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth (MIJARC).

For Fernandez, strengthening the links between urban and rural areas is vital to supporting mobility and enabling young people to return to rural areas. “Many people go to urban areas thinking that there are opportunities but in many cases that is not the reality…In India, young people going to big cities often end up in precarious jobs that are not sustainable,” he said, adding that: “in such situations, young people do not feel able to return to their rural villages because they do not have links back to their communities.”

Answering to the mobility needs of young people in rural areas is not just about enabling them to move across space; it’s also about supporting moves across sectors and diversification. A long history of research shows that for many small-scale farmers, agriculture is just one of a ‘system of activities’ that make up their livelihood. For rural youth especially, it can be very difficult to make ends meet with just one economic activity, said Remy. Donors and development agencies cannot remain blind to this reality if they want to truly support young people in rural areas. And that means first recognising that these people cannot simply be categorised as ‘farmers’ or ‘not farmers’, and then supporting the full set of activities that make up their livelihood.

Find out more — read our latest HIV/ IIED briefings

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