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

Last changed: 17 October 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. So that is why societies in general, IFAD and many UN organizations, as well as Sida and 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. Countries are going through the demographic transition; some countries are faster than others. Also, digital technology are coming more and more into our lives. So it is becoming very difficult to keep up with the change, even for youth.

- So, only if we make the correct investments to turn them 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 other opportunities.

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

- That is actually a key question for IFAD and all the governments and international development partners to focus on youth. In our report we pay attention to three different settings that matters very much for rural youth opportunities.

1. First we need to understand the countries that the youth live in or the parts of the countries that they live in. If they are living in a country that has gone through enough structural transformation (a lot of non-agricultural in their GDP, high rural transformation and high productivity in their agricultural production), then the investments in that place should be fundamentally different from the places where youth might be living with low structural transformation.

2. We also need to understand the matters like geographic spaces where they live; is the land is productive, is it subject to different effects from climate change or if it is in a rural place; is urban or peri-urban areas accessible? So what can I do with the resources that I have? This is the second stage; national, geographic space where they live, the 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, their constrains might be shaped by their families activities. For example, in slums around the cities there are still people living in subsystems or landless labourers. If I am youth in one of these families, it will constrain my opportunities and what I can do. So we look at the family settings; what youth do with their time, schooling, other kind of technical training, working in agricultural, working for wages or working in non-agricultural. We have put data together from 13 different countries representing 800 000 individuals. 

- So, we need to understand these settings where youth live and based on that we can come up with some frameworks and policies. Training youth for vocational skills 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 basically these places are places where we have a delayed demographic transition, meaning that death rates has come down, but birth rates are not coming down. The data are showing that women in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially young, rural women, want to have a lot of children because that is their insurance policy for their future. That has basically delayed Africa’s economic transition. I mean, all of our countries went through demographic dividend and our countries invested enough in the demographic transition so we could get a dividend, but Africa did not. 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 recourses to keep up with these dynamic nature of changes that we talk about (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 contributing a lot in its universities and in its youth. So 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 to measure that?

- This is already actually given to us, since UN and all the countries put together the SGI indicators, and sub-targets and sub-indicators – millions of numbers to track, million of numbers to improve. So, as long as we kind of know where we are starting and where we want to go and as long as there are resources, then we really need universities like SLU to fill that gap. There is so much to do in terms of research and contributions to policies.

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 is 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”. For example, if you’re living in Mongolia you are going to have to eat sheep or horse or whatever. 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 agrifood system that the countries develop. We eat more and more processed food and obviously related to that, we have some health problems – especially in Asia, but also in for example Latin America. In the same countries you could see this double burden of malnutrition. We have non-decreasing under-nutrition as well as increasing over-nutrition (obesity). So education and public messaging of healthy food systems, healthy diets and healthy lifestyles also becomes very important. Also, we have to attack the problem both from the supply side and the demand side. Youth are particularly gullible to bad habits, especially in the digital era, why it becomes very important to include them into the decision-making and the whole activism. We need to make them more active in these issues when they are still young and before it is too late.

Something you 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 non-cognitive skills education, like soft-skills or socio-emotional skills, especially in developing countries. World bank put together a report last year, 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 focussing on cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are the ones you use to fill in a multiple-choice test and read books and then memories. But when you talk to the youth activists and groups around the world today, they say “Yeah, I got this training, but I don’t know how to present my business idea and I don’t know how to talk to the entrepreneurs that are more adult and experienced.” In other words, they don not have the non-cognitive, socio-emotional skills to put the technical skills to use. IFAD traditionally don’t invest in education, but still we made an important point in this report; making sure that education system can include these socio-emotional skills or non-cognitive skills so that we can make the youth productive individuals. These are also among the investments that we highlighted. That is important to mention, here at the university especially.

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