Guest Article #19

Empowering Rural Areas: A Springboard to Sustainable Development

The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, is calling for a new approach to global recession and poverty, largely based on the creation of sustainable jobs.

Unleashing the potential of rural economies is an indispensable aspect of that new approach, and in ILO's work. Its Rural Employment and Decent Work Programme is closely linked to the concept of sustainable development. To paraphrase the definition of sustainable development coined by the landmark Bruntland Report, our Programme seeks to: meet the needs of the present generation and improve the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

At the heart of it is the idea that rural areas – home to 75% of the world's poor – have actually a considerable potential to drive growth, job creation, equitable and balanced development and crisis resilience.

It is an idea that challenges the stereotypical image of rural “endemic backwardness and unattractiveness” and replaces it with a more positive one, emphasizing decent work opportunities for rural communities.

The Programme does this by helping tap into a number of rural employment reservoirs, including: agribusiness industry and services; labour-intensive irrigation and construction schemes; environmental protection activities; eco- and ethnic tourism; local renewable energy production and ICT.

In the European Union, nearly 15 million jobs protect biodiversity and rehabilitate natural resources, while China is creating millions of jobs in forest management alone. In developing countries the potential is even greater, as little has been done so far.

The Programme's aim is to empower people and communities, by helping them understand the resources available to them and by “building” their voices and their ability to make the best use of those resources so they can take ownership and responsibility, and take control of their own development.

We need to abandon the urban/rural dichotomy that sees cities as places that drive growth and progress, through a concentration of industry and services, and rural areas as the providers of cheap labour, natural resources and agricultural products.

Rather than conceiving of rural development work only in terms of increasing agricultural productivity, alleviating poverty and promoting out-migration, we should refocus on “rural” as a fully-fledged economy in its own right. This means working to construct a rural transformation based on a combination of agriculture, industry and targeted economic and social services.

This approach enables rural areas to benefit from high-value industrial and service activities and from stronger job creation opportunities. This is because more jobs, and better-paid jobs, are generated through industrial growth and service growth, than through agricultural growth.

It also means that growth is more balanced and diverse, so no environment is overburdened by a crowding of economic activities in cities, or by focusing on agriculture only in the countryside.

This multidisciplinary, integrated approach further helps to reduce the massive waste of resources in rural areas: currently over one third of agricultural produce rots for lack of local processing, storage and transportation. And human resources, particularly youth and women - true engines of rural transformation - are largely undervalued, underdeveloped and underused since many lack appropriate skills, are not working, or work short time or below their capacities.

Attention to rural areas is mounting, given their link to pressing current concerns and commitments, such as poverty, unemployment, underemployment and economic growth. Rural issues also concern food security, climate and environmental degradation, where rural communities are both primary contributors to and victims of the problems.

Yet the urban/rural dichotomy persists. It permeates for instance the recent World Development Report on Jobs, which, while recognizing the increasingly serious economic, social and environmental issues emanating from urban congestion, encourages development work to focus on raising agriculture productivity in rural economies and to help “completing urbanization.”

There is a compelling argument for the need to think, and act, outside the traditional urban/rural box. We need to take a strategic step, and make sure that the rural economy is on the global agenda. In particular, it should be a focus of economic reconstruction, as one possible solution to the current jobs crisis.

The rural economy should be a protagonist in the UN development framework that will supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015, because by unleashing rural's true potential, post-2015 goals are assuredly more likely to be realized.