The first panel session on 4 July brought a global perspective to the challenges of globalization on rural livelihoods in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean.
Steve Wiggins of the ODI outlined some of the challenges to rural development in Africa – HIV/Aids, climate change, terms of trade (all well known) and examples like the unreliable urban markets for local producers (far less understood). Farmers, as one speaker from the floor remarked, just want to “get their produce purchased.” Finding reliable markets for rural products proved to be a recurring theme in the subsequent discussions. As IFAD’s Thomas Elhaut later remarked, while problems may seem to be ‘rural’ the solutions may not be.
Wiggins also pointed to some surprising developments in rural Africa – like the spread of mobile phones – and warned us to expect more. He also asked us to expect some ‘success stories’; he shared some data showing that cereal productivity over time in some African countries is as ‘successful’ as the rice revolution was in Asia. There is much to build upon.
Despite these little-known successes, he singled out disaster-preparedness and vulnerability as major issues to focus on. He argued that while we know to expect droughts, floods and other natural disasters we continue to be badly-prepared to cope with them.
Beyond better preparation, an answer may lie in the resilience – the capacity to adapt – of rural populations. These capacities are critical. Just as Elhaut suggested that rural areas act as human ‘safety nets,’ re-absorbing people in times when the modern urban sector fails, so the rural population needs what Wiggins called “better links, better connections” that allow them to adapt and develop the resilience they need to overcome disasters.
The two following speakers moved from Africa to the Pacific and Caribbean regions. Between them, Thomas Elhaut and Al Binger painted a rather pessimistic picture of rural lifestyles, livelihoods and prospects in the two island-based regions. Both regions are made up of several small islands where local markets are small and distances, especially in the Pacific are large. The island economies often depend on a few commodities – sugar, banana or tourism for instance – suffer from a brain drain of their intellectual capital, increasingly rely on remittances from these overseas citizens, and their natural environments are vulnerable to degradation and disasters. Despite their small size as countries, their rural populations suffer from poor infrastructure, high unemployment, growing social problems leading to high suicide rates, limited access to basic services, and a decline in opportunities. Young people seem to be particularly at risk.
In the Caribbean, these problems are partly due to the high costs of globalization – rural areas have lost out in international trade discussions (where ACP countries are losing their preferential market access); they have notably failed to find reliable long-term replacements for the lost occupations. Professor Binger also singled out a “loss of leadership” to “benefit rural farmers.”
A new paradigm?
What’s to be done? Steve Wiggins re-emphasized the need for local markets that will create local demand for local product. Al Binger concurs: “You cannot fix rural development if you cannot provide markets”, and be able to compete in your local ones.
More fundamentally, Binger argued for a new paradigm, one that is ‘sexy’ and will make rural development ‘front page’ news. Diversification is certainly part of a new approach, but not necessarily only among products, but to find new uses for products that are already there [see related story]. It’s important to look beyond on-farm production to the whole biomass system, from production and marketing to use.
It’s not just in the rural areas that Binger sees this new paradigm needing to take root. The WTO, for instance, could more actively support rural development in small island developing states – differentiating between small and large economies. WTO rules need to be equitable before they are identical. As Arnold Thomas of St. Vincent later remarked: “one size does not fit all.” And, according to Binger, OECD countries that wish to protect their own farmers should not do it at the cost of farmers elsewhere.
For IFAD’s Thomas Elhaut, it is critical that agriculture returns to the centre of development discussions. This calls for enhanced policy dialogue at national and international levels, it means “giving voices to the poor” – strengthening local capacities; and also seeing rural communities through new eyes. Elhaut advocated that we “look at poor people as producers contributing to growth” – part of the solution rather than the problem.
Thomas Elhaut reflects on rural challenges in the Pacific:
See more from the 4 July briefing