Friday, April 1, 2011


The rural poor are part of an ancient and well-established social structure, and efforts to improve their productivity without regard to this structure are likely to be frustrated.
World Bank (1978)

The rural development situation as is being propagated by scholars in the last decade is no different from past trends. Impoverishment and deprivation are manifest of the lag in development of rural areas of the world especially in developing countries with the urban areas experiencing the chunk of economic development and growth. The 1978 World Development report asserts that:

“Historical experience suggests that the poorer members of the population are unlikely to share equitably in economic growth, mainly because they have less access to the productive assets needed to generate incomes, land, credit, education, and jobs in the modern sector. In the poorest countries, with their slow average rate of growth, the incomes and consumption levels of the poorer half of the population have stagnated. Worse, in countries where agriculture has expanded more slowly than population (parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa), the incomes of some of the rural population has declined” (World Bank, 1978).

The above paragraph provides glimpses of the past which are semblance of current trends of the state of rural areas around the world. The proportions of the population living in absolute poverty are still high and are found in rural areas. About 40 percent of the population of developing countries, nearly 800 million people, were living in absolute poverty by 1978 and in 2009 the proportion has increased to 70 percent; an increase of 30 percent; demonstrating worsening trends in terms of the welfare of the rural folk despite advancement and innovation in interventions, technology and investments (World Bank, 1978; Cleveringa et. al 2009). This presupposes that interventions to enhancing livelihoods in rural areas have not been generally effective from an international perspective and even though significant improvements may have been achieved on country by country basis, international efforts must start reflecting on a paradigm shift and a self assessment of international agents’ roles in promoting rural development. This paper attempts to present a discussion of the characteristics of rural areas and the trends in their populations, their development and what has been the international response to the past and emerging challenges.

Defining Rural Areas
The definition of a settlement is relative depending on issues such as the geo-political and socio-economic situations of a country. For that matter the definition of what a rural area is subject to defined criteria. According to the FAO, the definition of a ‘rural area’ should meet two criteria: one related to place of residence and land settlement pattern, and the other related to the type of work that residents engage in (UNESCO and FAO, 2003). The various definitions thus mean that a settlement that is classified as rural by one country will differ across countries. The practice is usually to define urban as the opposite of rural and classify what is not urban as rural (UNESCO and FAO, 2006). For most scholars rural areas are small settlements with an agrarian economy. Yet there is no universally accepted definition of a rural area.

Most authors in an attempt to define what rural areas are present their characteristics. Characteristically, a rural area may refer to a space where human settlement and infrastructure occupy only a small share of the landscape; natural environment dominated by pastures, forests, mountains and deserts; settlements of low density (about 5-10,000 persons); places where most people work on farms; the availability of land at a relatively low cost; and a place where activities are affected by a high transaction cost, associated with long distance from cities and poor infrastructures (Ashley and Maxwell, 2001).

The importance of rural areas to the national economy is enormous. Aside providing livelihood support for the dwellers, their benefit exert to urban areas by providing alternative sources of livelihoods and investments. This is because in most of these areas are found the repository of natural resources which are mostly untapped. Such resources include timber, minerals, water, wild life and many others are found in these areas and are the livelihood supports for the dwellers. More emphatically,

“Rural areas form the basis for the livelihood for a significant share of the population of developing countries as most of them are farmers, fishermen or hunters; form the basis for food production and most often are the food baskets of both local communities and urban areas and at times for foreign countries; provide the nutritional needs of countries; and provide environmental resources, such as water, air, biodiversity, bio-energy and tourist attractions are found in rural areas and form the resource potential for earning or saving foreign exchange”. (Rauch et. al. 2001)

Trends of Rural Population
The IFAD (2011) estimates that between 1988 and 2008, the proportion of rural population in developing countries has been declining gradually from 67.21 to 56.57 percent. Dramatic declines occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) where between the same period, the population of rural population declined from 30.64 percent to 21.52 percent. The least of all these declined took place in Asia (excluding the middle east) where for the same period under review, i.e. 1988-2008, the proportion of rural population declined from 73.38 percent to 61.75 percent compared to that of Africa (Excluding Northern Africa) of 72.71 percent in 1988 to 63.96 percent in 2008. This indicates that unlike the world trends of urbanising population, the developing world still has majority of its population in rural areas and thus rural development must still be considered as a priority in development interventions.

Despite the decline in the proportion of rural population around the world, there have been general increases in the population since 1988. In all Developing Countries (DCs), the population in rural areas increased from 2548 million persons in 1988 to 2968 million persons in 2008 representing an increase of about 16.5 percent. Increases are evident in Africa and Asia while rural population figures declined in LAC. In Asia the population in rural areas increased from 1962 million persons to 2188 million persons; a percentage increase of 11.5 percent where as in Africa rural population increased from 333 million persons to 497 million persons; a percentage increase of 49.2 percent, the highest in all the regions. Unlike the general trend of rural population increases in DCs, LAC experienced decreases in the total rural population between 1988 and 2008. The population declined from 129 million persons in 1988 to 128 million persons in 1998 and down to 122 millions persons representing a percentage decline of 5.4 percent over the 20 year period. This therefore indicates that the population in LAC is urbanising at a faster rate than the other regions and therefore calls for increasing attention at planning for rural and urban development in a way that seeks to optimise the relationship between the two areas as well as controlling this emerging trend. Figure 1 summarises these trends.

Figure 1: Rural Population Trends from 1988 to 2008

Source: Estimated from IFAD 2011.

State of the World’s Rural Areas
The need to intervene in the state of rural areas are underpinned by the persistence of rural poverty at national, regional and the international level despite increases in development discussions on the subject matter since the early 1950s till date. Ravallion et. al. (2007) explain that although the world’s population is steadily urbanizing, the great majority of the world’s poor still live in rural areas noting also that new research on the breakdown between rural and urban poverty shows that 75 percent of those who live on less than $1 per day in developing nations live in the countryside – a higher estimate than many observers expected, given the continued growth of urban slums.

It is estimated that of the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty (defined as those living on less than US$1.25/day) in 2005, approximately 1 billion – around 70 percent lived in rural areas (IFAD, 2011 and United Nations, 2010). Specifically, rural poverty in South Asia is more than 45 percent for extreme poverty and over 80 percent for US$2/day poverty and in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60 percent of the rural population live on less than US$1.25 a day, and almost 90 percent live on less than US$2/day, in Latin America and the Caribbean respectively (World Bank 2010 and IFAD 2011).

Estimations from statistics presented in the 2011 “State of the Worlds Rural Poor” indicate that for all developing countries, the proportion of the rural population who are poor have declined from 90.47 percent in 1988 to 60.56 percent in 2008. For the same period again, the proportion of the rural poor declined from 90 percent in Asia (excluding Middle East) to 75.38 percent and 42.64 percent to 19.67 in LAC. However, trends in reduction have not manifested in Africa (excluding sub-Saharan Africa) as the other regions. Between 1988 and 1998, the proportion of the rural poor rather increased, from 75.38 to 86.12 percent and increasing again to 87.12 percent in 2008 which is the highest proportion among all the regions.

These trends are similar for the proportion of extreme poverty for this period. In Asia (excluding Middle East) and LAC, there was a declined from 59.12 to 31.40 percent and 25.58 to 9.02 percent respectively. For Africa (excluding sub-Saharan Africa) the proportion increased from 51.65 to 65.05 percent between 1988 and 1998 and declined to 67.51 by 2008. Again, this is the highest in all the regions. Overall, the experience in DCs is encouraging with the proportion of rural poor declining from 54.04 to 48.44 percent in 1998 and further declining to 34.03 percent in 2008.

Figure 2: Proportion of the Rural Population who were Poor between 1988 and 2008

Source: Estimated from IFAD 2011.

In absolute figures the trend is no different as observed in the preceding paragraph as trends in Africa (excluding Northern Africa) differ from the other regions. Despite decreases in the proportion of the rural poor, the number is increasing in Africa. In Asia (excluding Middle East), the number of poor rural folks declined from 1775 million persons to 1325 persons between 1988 and 2008 representing a percentage decline of 25.35. In the LAC, the percentage decline was 56.36 and 66.67 respectively for poverty and extreme poverty showing a change in the number of rural poor from 55 million to 24 million and 33 million to 11 million persons respectively. For Africa the number has been increasing; the total population of rural poor increased by 72.50 percent from 251 million to 433 million persons in the same vain as extreme poverty increasing by 77.90 percent from 172 million to 306 million persons over the 20 year period.

Despite the trends in Africa, the trends in DCs presented declining situations. The proportion of the rural population who experienced poverty and extreme poverty declined by 15.08 and 26.65 percent respectively. This illustrates a decline in absolute terms of 2121 million to 1801 million persons and 1377 million to 1010 million persons respectively. Figure 2 and 3 illustrates these trends.

Figure 3: Total Number of Rural Poor between 1988 and 2008

Source: Source: Estimated from IFAD 2011.

Overall, dramatic changes have occurred since 1980s despite the state of rural poverty today. The current rural population figure of 1 billion represents a substantial decline in rural poverty by about 28.6 percent from almost 1.4 billion in the late 1980s (Ravallion 2007).

These trends present interesting observations and provide critical basis for understanding the efforts that has warranted the decline and the persistence of rural poverty levels despite the decline world wide. Even though the poverty levels are declining, the manifestations of multidimensional poverty seem to undermine this achievement. Issues of access to socio-economic services as well as environmental and political trends present worsening indicators of rural dwellers as access to potable water, adequate shelter, improved health care and education as well as income levels coupled with the risk of climate change on economic livelihoods presents rural poverty reduction achievements as merely a reflection of mediocrity in development efforts.

For instance, the United Nation (2010) explains that increased use of improved water sources in rural areas has narrowed the large gap with urban areas, where coverage has remained at 94 per cent—almost unchanged since 1990. However, the safety of water supplies remains a challenge and urgently needs to be addressed. Again, in terms of improved sanitation, the agency emphasise that disparities between rural and urban areas remain daunting, with only 40 percent of rural populations covered.

In all these observations, education has been identified to be the greatest obstacle to poverty reduction efforts. Both access to socio-economic services and the appreciation, adoption and utilisation of improved health care services, potable water and improved sanitation as well as the adoption of new and improved methods and technique for farming leading to increase productivity and production are all influenced by education. UNESCO (2010) consolidates this assertion by affirming that over the last few decades, knowledge has become the key ingredient of the new production paradigm, and education has become an essential factor in the modernization of production systems and the economic behaviour of individuals.

This is the postulation of the Human Capital Theory. That education has positive correlation to the socio-economic wellbeing of individuals, society and nations and as Psacharopoulos and Patrinos (2007) puts it “the importance of human capital theory lies in its portrayal of education as an investment which not only has a positive impact on individuals (in terms of income), but also on society as a whole, increasing employment, economic growth and social equity.

Currently, there are evidences to confirm the relationship between education and development. In the 2010 Millennium Development Goal Report, the United Nation (2010) identifies that lack of education is another major obstacle to accessing tools that could improve people’s lives explaining further that poverty and unequal access to schooling perpetuate high adolescent birth rates, jeopardizing the health of girls and diminishing their opportunities for social and economic advancement.

Estimates up to 2008 indicates that net enrolment in primary education; defined as the number of pupils of the theoretical school age for primary education enrolled in either primary or secondary school, expressed as a percentage of the total population in that age group; is 89 percent in developing countries compared to 96 percent in developed countries and in half the countries in sub-Saharan Africa with available data, more than 30 percent of primary-school students drop out before reaching the final grade (United Nation 2010). In all their observation, the agency identifies rural areas as the most deprived and impoverished when it comes to access to socio-economic services. For this reason, promoting rural development interventions leading to poverty reduction can be paltry if education is not promoted as an integral aspect of interventions to enhance the wellbeing of rural areas.

International Response to Rural Development
In an attempt to ameliorate the worsening state of the rural dweller, some innovations and interventions have been propagated at different levels but most conspicuously at the international level. International response to rural development is manifest from two perspectives. The first relates to the approach and perspective to rural development interventions and the second in terms of increase flow of international aid from developed countries and multinational agencies to developing countries.

The approaches and techniques for rural development evolving through the past years to the current thinking on the subject matter have been initiated at the international level. Unfortunately, the adoption of these techniques by national actors and agencies have seen little modification and adaptation to local contexts. This has been the limitations to such international response to rural development. Most of these approaches a hooked to international aid flows and thus makes it difficult for adaptation at the local and national level. Notwithstanding, these approaches have provided avenues to understanding the issue of rural poverty and development in many countries especially in the early years of post colonialism as many countries lacked the capacity and initiative for research.

These interventions evolved from community development in the 1950s to small farms growth in 1960s, and continuing with small farm growths within integrated rural development in the 1970s. From state-led rural developments in 1970s, perspectives moved towards market liberations in the 1980s leading to process, participation, empowerment and actor approaches between the 1980s and 1990s. There was the emergence of sustainable livelihoods as an integrated framework in 1990s leading to the mainstreaming of rural development in poverty reduction papers in the 2000 (Ellis and Biggs 2001). These trends have not developed in a linear progressive sequence. Glimpses of such thinking were evident throughout these periods but their prominence emerged when international and donor agencies adopted them as the conditions for international aid and support for rural communities in developing countries. In the last decade, these approaches have been adopted at different times and places depending on the national interventions and focus of international donor agencies and NGOs. However, prominent in this era has been the integration of participation, inter-regional linkages, public private partnership and sustainability principles in all interventions. These approaches have underpinned successes in rural development interventions over the years in reducing rural poverty world wide. There are advantages and disadvantages of these approaches and the success or failure of these approaches are also subject to debate. Nonetheless, all these approaches have influenced rural development interventions in one country or the other and presents evidence of international response to rural development world wide.

The second aspect of international response to rural development which relates to international aid is not without controversy. There are several arguments for and against the effectiveness of international aid. However, the achievement thus far in terms of improvements in the human welfare of rural dwellers can be associated to aid. Even though this divide exists, recent research for instance confirms significant positive effects for aid targeted to health and education (Asiedu and Nandwa 2007). In most developing countries, the financial capacities to fund development is absent and/or are woefully inadequate and it is through the interventions of aid flows that ensures that national programmes and projects are implemented. Aid increasingly concentrates on the poorest countries, with the least developed countries (LDCs) receiving about a third of donors’ total aid flows (United Nations 2010). More evidently, the increasing number of NGOs in developing countries is an indication of the influence of international aid to rural developments. The primary areas that these NGOs operate are in rural areas and they seek mainly to enhance human wellbeing. For most of these NGOs in developing countries, funding of their activities are from developed countries and/or international donor agencies.

In 2009, net disbursements of official development assistance (ODA) amounted to $119.6 billion, or 0.31 percent of the combined national income of developed countries. In real terms, this is a slight increase (of 0.7 percent) compared to 2008 even though, measured in current US dollars, ODA fell by over 2 per cent—from $122.3 billion in 2008 (United Nations 2010). The importance of international aid to rural development cannot be underestimated even though there is need for improvement. According to Findley et. al. (2010) aid cheerleaders like Sachs and Bono point to many examples throughout the world where aid has helped to heal the sick, educate the illiterate, and feed the hungry. Indeed, they argue, for the many poor countries without meaningful access to global capital, aid can provide roads, energy, medicine, and textbooks, among many other necessities, to citizens who would otherwise go without.

Nevertheless, the optimum benefits of international aid to rural development has not been harnessed as international aid flows is still low; less than the international consensus of 0.7 percent of the GNI of donor countries. For instance, UNDP (2010) explains that easing financial constraints through aid frees up resources for social expenditures, still abysmally low in most developing countries as little progress towards the Millennium Development Goal target of increasing aid to 0.7 percent of donors’ GNI: official development assistance currently stands at 0.31 percent (OECD/DAC 2010), lower than in 1990 (0.34 percent).

Therefore, there is the need for international actors to augment their efforts to create and enhance opportunities to promote human welfare. Focus must therefore be on increasing flows and effectiveness through building local and national capacities to manage international aid flows as well as build international consensus on the principle for assessing effectiveness.

Undoubtedly, rural poverty is endemic in developing countries despite huge advances in efforts to achieve enhanced human welfare. Poverty trends are generally declining yet for some specific regions and countries poverty is importunate. This current era of increasing urbanisation due to rural-urban migration also presents situations where this negativity may be migrating to urban areas. Thus without effectively understanding the situation in its emerging manifestations would lead to development induced impoverishments; where the attractions of the urban areas would rather lead to the worsening state of human welfare. For this reason, experiences of what have worked and what have not need to be brought to the fore so that development practitioners can appreciate the changing dynamics and innovations in development interventionism.

Again, international response to rural development must be re-examined to ensure that although international trends and understanding are being integrated into development actions, they are made to fit within the specific ancient and well-established socio-economic structures that have created the problem. This would build national ownership and sustainability. And as development actors are raising attention on the need to increase international aid, there must also be the need for understanding the capacity issues of nations to manage the flow effectively. Provisions are also needed to increase developing nations’ capacities to raise their own finance from within to fund their own development.

Ashley, C.; Maxwell, S. 2001: “Rethinking rural development”. In: Development policy review, 19(4): 365-425

Asiedu, E., and B. Nandwa (2007): “On the Impact of Foreign Aid in Education on Growth: How Relevant Is the Heterogeneity of Aid Flows and the Heterogeneity of Aid Recipients?” Review of World Economics 143(4): 631–49.

Cleveringa, Rudolph, Melvyn Kay, and Alasdair Cohen, eds. InnoWat: Water, Innovations, Learning and Rural Livelihoods. Rome: IFAD, 2009.

Ellis, F. and S, Biggs (2001): Evolving themes in rural development 1950s-2000s. In: Development Policy Review, 19(4)

IFAD (2011): Rural Poverty Report. New realities, new challenges: New opportunities for tomorrow’s generation. the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Rome. http://

OECD/DAC (2010): “Development Aid Rose in 2009 and Most Donors Will Meet 2010 Aid Targets.” Newsroom. 14 April. document/11/0,3343,en_21571361_44315115_44981579 _1_1_1_1,00.html.

Psacharopoulos, G. and H.A. Patrinos (2007), “Human Capital and Rates of Return”. In G. Johnes and J. Johnes (eds.), International Handbook on the Economics of Education
Rauch Theo, Matthias Bartels, and Albert Engel (2001): Regional Rural Development; A regional response to rural poverty. GTZ

Ravallion, R., S. Chen, and P. Sangraula. 2007. New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty. Summary of World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4199. Washington, DC: World Bank. 38.

UNDP (2010): Human Development Report 2010, 20th Anniversary Edition. The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

UNESCO and FAO (2003): Rural Education and Rural Development. International Institute for Educational Planning, Paris.

UNESCO and FAO (2006): Education for Rural People in Africa. International Institute for Educational Planning, Paris

United Nations (2010): The Millennium Development Goal Report 2010. DESA, New York.

World Bank (2010) PovcalNet: the on-line tool for poverty measurement developed by the Development Research Group of the World Bank.

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