Harnessing The Power Of Rural Youth Has The Biggest Potential For Poverty Reduction

Kamal, 22, a seasonal farmer and a local of Gafargaon Upazila in the Mymensingh district, is leaving his home in the hopes of making his family financially solvent. His dreams are high, as he plans to be a migrant worker in Malaysia. Increasing unemployment and social pressure to take responsibility for his family are making Kamal leave in Bangladesh, a country where the youth unemployment rate has been growing and was highest in 2017 compared to the last three decades.

Like Kamal, thousands of youths leave their homes in search of better employment as well as social and life security.  Historically, the world currently has its largest population of children. About 1.18 billion people are under the age of 25, of which 88% live in developing countries. That number is expected to become 1.36 billion by 2050.

Figure 1: Percent youth population by country, source: Population Reference Bureau

These youths are the driving force of developing countries’ economy. However, even with their large forces, they lack representation for their interests at almost all levels. Many are in a delicate state faced with war, hunger, water and energy shortages, and climate change. The absence of a safe space for youths to express and to thrive has been recognized as a hindsight of the international development community. The United Nations (UN) has observed August 12 as International Youth Day since 2000. This year, the focus has been on creating a safe space for youth to draw attention to the need for youth empowerment.

Almost half of the global youth population resides in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The youths of these two regions face complex challenges, especially in rural areas.  The primary employment source in developing countries for rural youth is the informal economy, e.g. serving the family, sustenance farming, home-based micro-entrepreneurship, or through unskilled work. Lack of employment, empowerment, education, resource constraints, and space to express and to be innovative and contribute towards rural development are some of the core issues distressing youths in rural settings.

Rural youths typically earn low wages, operate under casual or seasonal work arrangements, and face unsafe, often exploitive working conditions. Research studies in many rural African communities showed farming is taken as low-status-quo for youths and almost a “last resort or not an option at all.” The researchers also found that work in agriculture is desired only if quick money or transition into other livelihood options is the end goal. The scenario is no different elsewhere.

The institutional infrastructure to provide rural youth with financial services like credit, savings, and insurance are non-existing, limiting their capacity to engage in income-generating activities. Thus, lack of empowerment and a safe space to nurture entrepreneurial ideas become limited for young women and men, driving them to relocate, like Kamal. For most of them, the movement is uninformed, involuntary, and under distress. However, the perception of the status-quo deems migration as the only option for growth and prosperity. This has become a driving force in the decline of the rural population worldwide. Also, youth migration from rural areas leads to an aging agro community. Aging agriculture has already turned out to be a risk to the prospect of food production in Africa.

Which brings us back the core issue of empowerment and a safe space to consult. Studies have revealed that youths who are engaged in farming tend to derive a higher income from their agricultural activities when using new production methods and technologies. This has a three-dimensional impact: 1) reduce poverty, 2) increase agrarian productivity, and 3) enhance the status of youth employment.

Achieving this engagement will require addressing the numerous constraints that they face when trying to earn a livelihood. First, the barriers for youths to engage in decision-making processes must be removed. Climate change is real for everyone. Our next generation will face the consequences of today’s actions and, thus, must have a voice in policymaking. Empowerment and a secure space can change the perception surrounding agriculture and its status. Youth engagement will also eliminate the generational gap in knowledge transfer and resilience. Second, access to information, finance, and training will enable youths to explore transdisciplinary options to develop a capacity for rural livelihood. This will secure their future. Third, access to natural resources and their management — e.g. land, livestock, or water sources — will build confidence and trust. Fourth, emphasis on local agricultural innovation and technologies offer possibilities to reform and participate in agribusiness along crop value chains, thereby creating suitable youth employment.

However, these goals require financing from governments and development agencies. International agencies have put forth growing attention to incorporate youths in agricultural policies and sustainable value chain process to reduce their vulnerability in the future and ensure their economic assimilation. A focus on youth in agricultural policies supported by innovative local technologies has enormous potential to add socioeconomic growth in developing countries and reduce poverty.