Poverty is so intertwined with hunger, migration, forced displacement, conflict and environmental degradation that prioritising its eradication is not only a moral and economic imperative, but essential to address the most pressing global issues of our time.
To eradicate poverty, we have to focus our attention on the rural areas of developing countries where three quarters of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live.
The incomes of 2.5 billion people worldwide still depend directly on rural small farms, therefore developing smallholder agricultural production and market access is an essential starting point.
In terms of poverty, the plight of sub-Saharan Africa is particularly disturbing. Although, according to the World Bank, more than 1 billion people were able to escape extreme poverty globally between 1990 and 2012, in sub-Saharan Africa absolute poverty has actually increased since 1990 and an estimated 330 million people live below the poverty line.
It is important to ask why the continent has not made progress in its fight against poverty, and what can be done about it.
Extractive natural resources account for three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s total exports but the resulting billions of dollars in revenue have had a limited impact on poverty reduction.
In some cases, the promotion of these industries has been to the detriment of investments in agriculture. Yet studies show that growth in agriculture is up to 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in any other sector in sub-Saharan Africa.
The potential of agriculture to create prosperity for millions of people cannot be underestimated. In fact, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods for close to 40 per cent of today’s workforce globally, and 60 per cent in Africa.
The untapped potential on the African continent is enormous. It has 25 per cent of the world’s arable land and half the world’s uncultivated land suitable for growing food crops.
The African population growth of 2.7 per cent annually means food demand wills double every 30 years. Agriculture could lead African development, improve food security and job growth so that people can move out of poverty and will not need to leave rural areas in search of opportunities elsewhere.
But even with all this potential agriculture is, unfortunately, not the priority of many African leaders. In 2003, African governments pledged to allocate 10 per cent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development within five years. Only 13 countries had met their targets by 2012.
Instead of developing its own agricultural sector, the continent spends US$35 billion on food imports annually – money that could be invested in creating domestic employment, particularly in rural areas.
Too often leaders expect economic growth alone to result in poverty reduction – but the one does not automatically lead to the other.
Last month, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) released The Rural Development Report 2016, which analysed rural development, transformation, and poverty reduction in more than 60 developing countries.
One of the study’s central findings is that targeted policies focused on transforming rural areas are essential to eliminate poverty.
These are policies that promote increased agricultural productivity and marketable surpluses, expanded off-farm employment opportunities and better access to services and infrastructure. These policy and investment choices have to be made. They do not happen on their own.
IFAD’s experience over nearly four decades has shown that when rural people have reliable access to land and other natural resources, functioning infrastructure, technologies, finance and markets, then both their livelihoods and their communities flourish, contributing significantly to economic growth.
Once we see smallholder farmers as rural entrepreneurs and their farms as viable and profitable businesses, the importance of investing in agriculture to ensure those businesses thrive becomes evident.
The result: rural areas become vibrant centres of employment and prosperity and the estimated 600 million young people in developing countries who will be looking for jobs over the next decade will not need to migrate to urban areas or beyond their counties’ borders to find opportunities elsewhere.
Of course, achieving poverty eradication is not just the responsibility of governments. It will require all actors – farmers, domestic investors along food value chains, research institutions, development agencies, educational institutions and others – to work together towards this common goal.
With visionary leadership, targeted investments and policies, and coordinated effort, poverty eradication is not just a lofty ideal. It is achievable – but we must recognise the urgency and act now. IPS
Dr Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)