COVID-19 Imperils Rural Areas but, With Help, Farmers Can Recover

In a zeal to repair the pandemic’s economic and social damage, governments have made dramatic spending pledges. And yet, a crucial segment of the population who have struggled the most during the pandemic are being left out.

Eighty percent of the world’s poorest people — or 600 million people, more than Europe’s entire population — live in rural areas, work in agriculture and, ironically, go to bed hungry. Almost half of them are children under the age of 15. They have fewer opportunities for education and jobs than their urban counterparts. They also lack access to markets, healthcare and financial services.

Worse, farmers across the globe are struggling with poor harvest, pricey seeds and fertilizers, lack of access to credit, and low market prices for their produce. The distress in rural areas, compounded by the impact of COVID and climate change, is astonishing. In India, where 60 percent of the population works in agriculture, at least 10,280 farmers committed suicide in 2019 — and that was before COVID. Hundreds of thousands of farmers took to the streets protesting new farm bills that could make their situation even more desperate.

International institutions are calling for a “fair and green” recovery. So it’s alarming when the International Monetary Fund, whose financing is crucial for developing nations’ economies, warns of the danger of poorer nations being left behind in post-pandemic recovery, yet neglects to mention the role of rural development and agriculture in it.

Even the White House’s infrastructure bill largely focuses on providing jobs and rebuilding roads and bridges in American cities, despite the fact that rural communities were more vulnerable to the pandemic’s impacts and require recovery plans different from those designed for cities.

The pandemic is like the parable of the ocean tide that revealed who was swimming naked. It has unearthed systemic inequality in societies, leaving many women, young people and informal workers scrambling for survival. A generation of hard work that lifted 400 million people out of poverty is gone — virtually overnight — due to the coronavirus pandemic. As many as 132 million people joined the ranks of the hungry in 2020.

Governments must refocus their energies more on rural areas. In rural areas, agriculture is the best weapon against poverty, undernourishment and unwanted migration.

The decline of agriculture happened over decades. Countries’ growth strategies and cuts in public services systematically undermined the sector until agricultural growth stalled. Funding for agricultural research increasingly came from the private sector, making researchers shift away from smallholder farmers and leaving a data gap.

All this happened despite the fact that agriculture has always been the main livelihood of poor people. Three quarters of the labor force in poor countries are employed in agriculture. Agriculture is twice as effective in reducing poverty than other sectors are. When agriculture was at the top of the agenda, poverty decreased rapidly. For example, Indonesia cut extreme poverty from 50 to 14 percent between 1981 and 1995 by investing in agriculture. The sector remains the country’s engine of growth.

In an age of more complex and sophisticated supply chains, countries must rethink agriculture, as traditional farming activities can be transformed into a competitive industry. Nigeria took a big economic hit when the price of oil collapsed during the pandemic. Investing in the quality of its cocoa beans to supply international chocolate markets would create a stable source of income. The Iraqi government, also an oil exporter, banned the imports of onions and eggplants to boost local agriculture and cushion the country’s vulnerability to oil price fluctuations.

According to the IMF, low-income countries will need some $200 billion over five years just to fight the pandemic. They will then need another $250 billion to catch up with the rest of the world. To put these figures into perspective, the Fed’s 2008 rescue package was almost $500 billion. These investments should be directed to revive agriculture sustainably.

Cutting poverty and hunger doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Industrialized countries already spend $12 billion annually to do this. In a recent modeling study, my colleagues and I found that if they double their investment for 10 years and if poorer countries keep up with their investment to promote a series of low-cost interventions it could help 500 million people escape from hunger. The deployment of broadband technologies in rural areas is an example of cost-effective investment with tremendous returns, reducing digital divide and inequality. Governments can cover the initial cost and private companies can expand access.

Of course, the answer is not to hand out harmful agricultural subsidies driven by politics. Governments give $540 billion to farmers every year; more than half of it end up distorting markets and harming the environment. Those subsidies should be repurposed toward agricultural R&D, biosecurity and infrastructure programs, which would create on- and off-farm employment and diversify sources of income for rural populations.

Crippling rural poverty could leave large swaths of the post-pandemic world unvaccinated and unemployed — a recipe for future economic downturns. 

For a fair and green recovery, we cannot give farmers the shaft.

A version of this article appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation News on July 9, 2021.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)