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Breaking the bonds of rural poverty once and for all

Today, World Food Day, the world has a lot to celebrate.

As a global community, we’ve made real progress in fighting global hunger and poverty in recent decades. A majority of the countries monitored by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization—72 out of the 129—have achieved the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the prevalence of undernourishment in their populations by 2015. Meanwhile, the share of people in developing regions who live in extreme poverty has come down significantly, too—from 43 percent in 1990 to 17 percent this year.

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But progress has been uneven. Globally, some 800 million people continue to suffer from chronic hunger. Almost one billion remain trapped in extreme poverty.

So despite major strides, hunger and poverty have stayed with us—even in times of plenty. Economic growth, especially in agriculture, has been essential to driving down rates of hunger and poverty, yes. But it is not enough, because all too often it is not inclusive.

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Long alert to this fact, many nations in the developing world have established social protection measures—offering people regular financial or in-kind support, or access to self-help programs—on the understanding that they are necessary, front-line actions for tackling poverty and hunger.

Study after study shows that social protection programs successfully reduce hunger and poverty. In 2013 alone, such measures lifted around 150 million people out of extreme poverty.

What may come as a surprise is that these programs do more than just cover shortfalls in income. They are not just a hand-out that allows people to simply tread water. Rather, they are a hand-up that can put them on a fast track to self-reliance.

Most of the world’s poor and hungry belong to rural families who depend on agriculture for their daily meals and their very livelihoods. These family farmers and rural laborers, understandably, are focused on survival in the here and now. They adopt low-risk, low-return approaches to income-generation, underinvest in the education and health of their children, and are often forced to adopt negative coping strategies such as selling off meager assets, putting their kids to work, or reducing food intake to cut expenses. They become trapped in survival mode. Poverty and hunger become intergenerational—and seemingly inescapable.

It does not have to be that way.

Today, we know that even relatively small transfers to poor households, when regular and predictable, can serve as insurance against those risks that tend to deter them from pursuing higher-return activities or lead them to adopt negative risk coping strategies. Social protection allows poor and vulnerable households to have a longer time horizon, offering them hope and the ability to plan for the future.

And far from creating dependency, the evidence shows that social protection increases both on-farm and nonfarm activities, strengthening livelihoods and lifting incomes. Social protection also fosters more investment in the education and health of children, and reduces child labor. Social protection in the form of cash increases the purchasing power of the poor, who demand goods and services produced largely in the local economy, leading to a virtuous circle of local economic growth. Social protection programs also provide a way for communities to make important infrastructure and asset gains—for example, irrigation systems built through cash-for-work activities.

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With most of the world’s poor and hungry still living in the countryside and still dependent on agriculture, twinning social protection with agricultural development programs makes compelling sense. This is why the Food and Agriculture Organization chose social protection and agriculture as the theme of World Food Day this year.

But knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. To break the age-old bonds of rural poverty once and for all, the world needs to act with more urgency—and more decisively.

Political commitment, adequate funding, partnerships, and complementary actions in health and education will be key elements in transforming this vision into reality. Policy and planning frameworks for rural development, poverty reduction, food security and nutrition need to promote the joint role of agriculture and social protection in fighting poverty and hunger, together with a broader set of interventions, notably in health and education.

Pulling together, using the knowledge and tools at our disposal—and without breaking the bank—we can eliminate chronic hunger entirely by 2030. Now that would be cause for celebration, indeed.

José Graziano da Silva is the director-general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

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TAGS: Food and Agriculture Organization, Millennium Development Goals, Poverty, undernourishment, United Nations, World Food Day
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