Creating opportunities for rural youth is more urgent than ever

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The "youth bulge" is here.

Countries have an urgent choice to make: create employment opportunities, especially in rural areas, and reap the demographic dividends of a young vibrant workforce or face the social unrest and political instability that high rates of youth unemployment may bring about. The Rural Youth Employment synthesis paper, published by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank, shows how a thriving rural economy can help address major challenges caused by rural youth unemployment and its direct effects - such as mass migration.

"Rural areas are failing to provide opportunity and are losing their young people. This has major consequences at the local, national and global level. It can erode national economies, political stability, and food security," warned IFAD's president Gilbert F. Houngbo at a recent conference for African Union and European Union agriculture ministers in Rome.

Today there are over 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24. The majority of youth in low and middle income countries live in rural areas. If few opportunities are available in rural areas, they are likely to migrate overseas or to urban centres, even though youth unemployment rates are generally higher in urban areas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Opportunities for youth exist in rural areas

Yet, opportunities exist. The paper highlights the huge potential that rapidly evolving agriculture and food systems have for employing rural youth. The burgeoning demand for food, and a shift in consumption to higher value products, are creating new job opportunities not only in production, but also in distribution, processing and related services. Exploiting this potential is vital given that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 16 million young people will enter the labour market every year until 2030, mainly in rural areas.

What can concretely be done?

To raise the demand for labour and services, the paper stresses the importance of supporting rural businesses and "agripreneurs", making agricultural products more profitable and raising overall productivity.

IFAD's president summed it up when he said that "a smallholder will not invest in building production if there is no access to markets and no hope of selling a marketable surplus. Similarly, the private sector also will not invest if the risk seems too high. So it is important for governments and development institutions to invest in smallholders, but also to de-risk investment by others." The burgeoning worldwide demand for food, and a shift in consumption to higher value products, are creating new job opportunities in production, distribution, processing and related services.

The paper examines the specific challenges young people, and young women in particular, face. These include limited access to vocational training, land and financial services. Efficient land rental markets, and youth-oriented savings and credit schemes, can help address these gaps. Other recommendations include investing in complementary infrastructure, stimulating private sector investment, and improving the rural business climate and trade by providing incentives and reducing barriers such as local fees and burdensome procedures. Secondary towns, where people leaving agricultural work are much more likely to find jobs than in big cities, can be made more attractive to youth by increasing access to education, health and recreation.

Finally, young people are often excluded from political processes which means their needs are not accounted for. The report warns that unemployment combined with limited participation in policy processes may lead to social and political instability. Conversely, if youth are gainfully employed in productive activities, and their innovative and entrepreneurial potential realised, the "youth bulge" can lead to broad-based economic growth and inclusive development.