"One of the most important policies is investing in rural young women"

Last changed: 25 November 2019

Aslihan Arslan is Senior Research Economist at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). She was invited to SLU to present the "IFAD Rural Development report 2019: Creating opportunities for rural youth", at the Agri4D 2019 conference.

What potential do you see in rural youth in reaching food and nutrition security around the globe?

- There has not been any unifying framework to understand how and why we should make rural development inclusive of youth. Youth is a transition from dependence to independence and there are a lot of important decisions that happen during this transition that both shape individuals, life and societies in general. That is why societies in general, IFAD and many UN organisations, as well as different government agencies, have started thinking more about youth.

- When you look at the numbers; of the total 1,2 billion youth in the world, 780 million live in rural spaces. These people are the future adults, leaders, teacher, entrepreneurs and farmers.

- We are going through tremendous change, both in terms of climate change and the demographic transition. Also, digital technology is coming more and more into our lives. It is becoming very difficult to keep up with the change, even for youth.

- So, only if we make the correct investments to turn the youth into future adults, productive, connected and in charge, can we actually affect the future society in spite of all these huge changes that happens in our lives, both opening opportunities and closing up some others. 

What kind of programmes and investments in the youth are needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

- That is actually a key question for IFAD, all governments and international development partners to focus on youth. In our report, we have put data together from 13 different countries representing 800 000 individuals, and we pay attention to three different settings that matters very much for rural youth opportunities.

1. First we need to understand the structural and rural transformation levels of countries that the youth live in or the parts of the countries that they live in. If they are living in a place that has gone through enough structural transformation where broad opportunities exist, the investments in that place should be fundamentally different from the places with low levels of transformation, where opportunities for everyone are lacking.

2. We also need to understand how agricultural and commercialization potentials of geographic spaces where they live affect their opportunities. Majority live in places with high agricultural potential, but even if the land is productive, is it subject to different effects from climate change, or if it is in a rural place; are they physically and digitally connected to urban or peri-urban areas? What can they do with the resources they have within their rural opportunity space?

3. Lastly, even if we look at youth living in a highly transformed country, with good land and good connections to urban spaces, whether they can seize opportunities is shaped by their families’ activities – as majority of youth live as dependents. For example, youth living in slums around cities may belong to households that primarily work as landless labourers. If I am youth in one of these families, it will constrain my opportunities and what I can do. So, understanding the family settings is the third component of thinking differently about rural youth. What youth do with their time, such as schooling, technical training, working on the family farm, working for wages or working in non-agricultural enterprises, all depend on what their families do.  

- So, we need to understand these multiple settings where youth live and based on that we can come up with a framework to shape policies and investments. Training youth for vocational skills in an area with low levels of transformation is not going to do much, if they don’t have connectivity to markets, access to finance or access to land. Especially rural young women face other social norms that can constrain their participation in the economy. One of the most important policies is investing in rural young women. Why is that? Because demographic transition depends on lowering birth rates following a decrease in death rates  and especially in rural areas this transition is delayed because birth rates are not coming down. The data are showing that women in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially young, rural women, want to have more children than their urban counterparts or rural young women in other continents, because that is partly their insurance policy for their future. That has delayed Africa’s demographic dividend. So, investing in young rural women, both in education, but also trying to change the social norms around their mobility and participation in the economy and society is very important, as well as access to reproductive health care and reproductive education.

How can SLU as a university contribute this development?

- It is important that the government that is surrounding the university is willing to invest in creation of knowledge and creating enough resourses to keep up with this dynamic nature of change that we talk about, i.e. the digital revolution, climate change. To create new knowledge to deal with these new challenges is becoming more and more pressing and it seems that the Swedish Government is investing a lot in its universities and in its youth. We need to create knowledge, but also make that knowledge really policy relevant. We need to sit down at the same table as the government and look at: What do we want to achieve? Where do we start? What kind of research do we need? How do we go where we need to go? How do we measure the impacts of what we invest rigorously to build an evidence-based culture for policy making and practice?

- Some of the answers are already given to us, since all the countries that are part of the UN have come together and agreed on the SGDs with clear targets and indicators, as well as sub-targets and sub-indicators. We have countless numbers to track, countless numbers to improve to be able to achieve them. So, as long as we know where we are starting and where we want to go and as long as there are resources, we can make progress. We really need universities like SLU to fill that knowledge gap with rigorous research and direct contributions to policies at the national as well as global levels.

The theme for this conference is Zero hunger by 2030. According to you, what’s the main focus, how can we reach that goal?

- I think it’s very timely that this conference is happening at the same time as the Climate summit is happening in New York. Climate change is obviously the most pressing issue that we are facing now. As said in the IPCC report, land use and food production are at the centre of the action that we need to take for zero hunger.

- We have to look both on the supply and demand side. For example, it does not work to say: “We should all be vegetarians”. To give an example, if you’re living in Mongolia you are going to have to eat animal protein to have a sustainable and good diet. You cannot be vegetarian and call yourself climate smart in Mongolia or in the pastoralist systems in Kenya and Tanzania. It is important to respect the nature of the food system in the places where we live.

- Together with that, we also need to have a big discussion about the agri-food system that the countries develop. We eat more and more processed food and related to that, we have some health problems – especially in Asia, but also in for example Latin America. It is becoming more and more common to see a double burden of malnutrition; we have non-decreasing under-nutrition as well as increasing over-nutrition (obesity) in the same countries. So, education and public messaging of healthy food systems, healthy diets and healthy lifestyles also becomes very important. It is also important that we attack the problem both from the supply and the demand side. Youth are particularly gullible to bad habits, especially in the digital era, which makes them increasingly more vulnerable to this challenge. That is another reason why it becomes very important to include them into the decision-making processes.  We need to give them agency related to the policies and programs that shape their future when they are still young and before it is too late.

Is there something you would like to add?

- Yes, since we are at a university, I want to mention that educational systems currently do not really provide enough room for building non-cognitive skills, which we can also call soft-skills or socio-emotional skills, especially in developing countries. The World Development Report in 2019, The Changing Nature of Work, looking at how the labour markets and the nature of work has been changing rapidly and how education systems are actually failing our youth and our societies in general by just focusing on cognitive skills.

-  In our report, the Rural Development Report 2019, we made an important point; making sure that education systems include these socio-emotional skills or non-cognitive skills is very critical to making youth productive and connected individuals thata re in charge of their own lives. These are also among the investments that we highlighted. I think that is important to mention, especially here at one of the leading universities in agricultural sciences and food systems.

Thank you Aslihan!

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