IFAD chief warns against a siloed approach to rural youth

Gilbert Houngbo, president at the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Photo by : ©FAO / Giulio Napolitano

WASHINGTON — A focus on youth is nothing new for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, but the financial institution is hoping a new report out Tuesday will help the development community better address the challenges facing rural youth.

The 2019 rural development report “Creating Opportunities for Rural Youth is an effort to collect and present data to inform key steps that can be taken to help them build livelihoods, reduce poverty, improve food security, and improve stability.

While much in the report is not new, it does include a few issues that give IFAD President Gilbert Houngbo “food for thought,” he told Devex in an interview.

While IFAD has traditionally focused on the remotest rural areas where there are about 500 million youth, that number jumps substantially — to nearly 800 million — when semirural or periurban youth are included. The definition of rural may go beyond just the remotest areas and “there is more and more need to integrate the urban-rural and semirural dimension,” Houngbo said.

The report also highlights some myths about rural youth. They don’t, as it turns out, necessarily want to leave rural areas and move to the city, but they don’t want to be farmers in the way that their grandparents were, either.

There will in fact be a growing number of rural youth in Africa, Houngbo said. About two-thirds of those rural youth live in an area that is close to good agriculture production, which “means that if there are well-targeted policies and actions, the likelihood they accept remaining rural is higher than it was thought,” he said.

Houngbo is not surprised by this finding, he said, since conversations with youth and his own time as prime minister in Togo revealed that young people don’t always set their sights on a move to the city.

Effective approaches for rural youth development

The report says that productivity, connectivity, and agency should be the three foundations for rural youth development.  

Increasing productivity will need new technology as well as human capital training and an investment in basic social protections, Houngbo said. Farmers need to be trained in new techniques and to be more resilient to climate shocks, but they also need to be trained to see agriculture as a commodity and learn business skills.

When youth are connected, either through access to information or good transportation infrastructure, they have more opportunities, the report says. But in order to be more productive and connected, youth must have the power to make their own decisions, which is especially important since rural youth tend to be more excluded than their urban counterparts, according to the report.

“Focusing on just one of them will be less effective than focusing on all three,” the report reads. “Social, political, economic, educational, and psychological connections allow youth to accumulate resources and deploy them in ways that increase their productivity and incomes while also generating value for society. Creating these connections requires agency, having a measure of control over one’s decisions and trajectory in life.”                        

A siloed approach on youth without a broader focus on rural transformation will result in failure, Houngbo said. If the focus is only on youth in agriculture, or agriculture-related farm or nonfarm activities but doesn’t address health or education, “then the whole thing might fall apart,” he added.

This strategy will inform IFAD’s work moving forward and it will become a part of the country strategies it develops alongside governments, but Houngbo said he also hopes that it provokes a debate that helps put rural youth at the center of the conversation. He is convinced that in low- income or lower income countries, any strategy that doesn’t put rural populations at the center of development will not be taking the best approach.

IFAD has learned that youth must be part of the program design, and Houngbo said the report will help build the team’s analysis on youth issues and reporting on the development impacts as it fine-tunes its interventions.

Ensuring that farming is at the core of international development and that it’s about a spectrum of dimensions across the food system — from production, to market access, to food waste — is critical and part of the reason IFAD is pushing for a food system summit in 2021.

The greatest challenge moving forward, Houngbo said, is to have everyone — in the international community and at the national level — “see the urgency to intervene now.”

About the author

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.