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Is rural poverty invisible?

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10th-May-2018       
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Alison Small :
If an estimated 500 million smallholder farmers at a conservative estimate, produce 70 percent of the food we eat, why are they still so invisible in many countries?
Governments, development agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector have been working for decades on rural development in developing countries but still rural areas lag far behind cities and outlying areas in terms of infrastructure, services, social and economic development, notwithstanding the contribution that rural producers make to supplying us with food. In the United States the vote for President Trump was heavily supported by disheartened voters in rural areas while India is singular for having a high turnout amongst rural voters.
In most developing countries, rural producers are especially vulnerable to extremes of climate, drought followed by flooding, and other weather related issues, along with restricted services of almost every kind. Not by coincidence do we find that three-quarters of the world's 836 million people living in extreme poverty are found in rural areas.
Smallholder farmers continue therefore to be largely invisible, notwithstanding our dependence on the food and other goods they produce. Its a paradox that appears to have become an inevitability. What you don't see, doesn't affect you.
In developed countries we worry about the rise of beggars on the streets, who make us feel uncomfortable as we step around them to enter our favourite cafe, bank or shop, and sometimes we offer them a coin or something to eat or drink. But the poor in rural areas, barely affect us. Perhaps subconsciously we think, they are living on the land, they can produce their own food, whereas seeing beggars in urban areas surrounded by concrete is perhaps more identifiable as poverty.
How many tourists visit rural areas, how many people actually witness rural poverty in developing countries, and if they do, perhaps the problem seems so entrenched that it appears intractable. The rural poor are largely off our radar, even off the radar of many governments it would appear. They exist, we exist but we seem unable to bridge the divide effectively.
Development agencies can point to hundreds of millions of dollars spent in projects and programmes aimed at improving the conditions of the rural poor, schools, shelter, wells for water, the provision of planting materials and other assistance to farmers, including significant assistance to rural women, women's groups, women farmers, as well as access to extension and even some limited banking services. The fact is that distance, entrenched poverty, cultural biases, and poor governance, exacerbate the rural-urban divide. The irony is that rural poverty increases the vulnerability of governments to instability, terrorism and economic vulnerability because poverty can easily be exploited and the poor manipulated. But if we are seeking solutions to feed a growing world population projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, the problem is fundamental to human survival. We help the food producers, the majority of them in rural areas and smallholders, we help ourselves, we also add to political stability and economic prosperity. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious, and the measurement of progress to achieve the goals is a hugely expensive development process of its own, but are real efforts being made by governments or is this just lipservice to the UN and for the UN to show some sort of progress without effecting any systemic change in the way resources including goods and services are divvied out by governments? The Agenda 2030 vision and commitment are that no one will be left behind. It was adopted by 150 world leaders in 2015 but we have a long way to go before we can expect to see any progress to reach the 2030 target date.
New Zealand's Helen Clarke, then Executive Head of the United Nations Development Programme stated "that ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change and the first generation with the wealth and knowledge to eradicate poverty, for which reason, fearless leadership is needed". But more than leadership, we need to keep the momentum going and we need to really consider what is actually working and what may need to be scrapped.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development, one of the three Rome food and agriculture based agencies, will be holding an international conference on rural inequalities to consider how to overcome disparities from 2 to 3 May.
Can the 60 international speakers come up with anything new that may give us some hope for progress . It would be an encouraging sign to see concrete suggestions by practitioners and even if a handful of governments could take some of the suggestions or proposals , set aside serious money and constructively work to improve the lives of the rural poor in a bid to keep humanity moving in the right direction over the next 33 years when we have 2.2 million more mouths to feed.
(Alison Small is a communications expert and a former United Nations official).

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