A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Focus on issues

The Rural Exodus: a challenge for developing countries

Having already affected western countries, the Rural Exodus now concerns developing countries where it is causing profound economic, social and cultural changes.
Unbridled liberalization of international agricultural exchanges accentuates this trend by forcing developing countries to cope with an impossible situation that is yet another obstacle to development.
This phenomenon illustrates, once again, the need for reinstating agriculture at the center of a world strategy against poverty.

The Rural Exodus, which involves the depopulation of the countryside and the abandonment of professions linked to the land, has become an important international issue today: in 2007, and for the first time in the history of mankind, urban populations have exceeded those in rural areas. According to a study published by the FAO in June 2006, an estimated 800 million people have abandoned the country for the city over the last 50 years.

Moreover, the departure of peasant-farmers for the cities has a stronger impact due to the extraordinary urban development in certain developing countries (DCs) or emerging countries, mainly in Africa and Asia.

If countries like the United Sates, China or Niger experience a rural exodus, the stakes are radically different: the phenomenon in the DCs corresponds to specific economic and social situations and is different from what has happened (and is continuing to happen) in rich western countries. The economic, social and sanitary consequences are so serious that they fundamentally compromise the development prospects of these countries.

I. The two faces of the Rural Exodus

The differences between the rural depopulation processes observed in Western Europe and in the DCs are such that it is possible to define two models, each with its own characteristics.

European countries. The abandonment of rural areas in favor of cities has been gradual in Western Europe, due to industrial revolutions in the 19th century in England and during the second half of the following century in France. In this specific case, the rural exodus coincided with a period of dramatic modernization on farms: in the 1950s and 1960s productivity increased each year by almost 7%, therefore freeing up labor for industry and services that were rapidly developing.

The trend continued, even during the second half of the last century: between 1970 and 1999 the proportion of agriculture in overall employment was divided by 3 and decreased from 10.38 to 3.31 % on average for the six founding countries of the European Economic Community 1.

Developing countries. The same cannot be said for the rural exodus that is fundamentally reshaping the population of many of these countries. Fierce competition between increasingly competitive agricultures, price volatility, lack of modernization on the farms and deterioration of the environment have driven millions of poor peasant-farmers to the cities in the hope of finding better living conditions.

These migratory trends are complex in that migrants moving within their own country outnumber expatriates 7 to 1. The latter prefer to move to a neighboring country. Finally, others try to reach North America or the EU.

The modernization of agriculture that characterized the second half of the 20th century (mechanization, use of fertilizers, development of varieties and species) has not reached all the farmers on the planet, far from it. Nearly one third still uses only manual tools, does not use any fertilizers or treatments and cultivates or grows varieties and species that have not been specially bred for agriculture.

II. “Traditional” agriculture is fragile due to the liberalization of exchanges and deterioration of the environment

The rural exodus that is occurring in the DCs demonstrates the weakening of agriculture by economic and environmental factors.

Commercial factors. Downward trends in international agricultural prices within a volatile economic context and fierce competition from highly powerful agricultural countries on world markets have deprived the DCs of the opportunity to renew their production tools and methods and preserve their market share. Because they cannot make a decent living from their work (and even earn a subsistence income) moving to the city seems inevitable.

Environmental factors. Desertification also contributes to the rural exodus. Defined by the United Nations as “the deterioration of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas due to a variety of factors such as climate change and human activities”, it has spread on all continents but has hit Africa and Asia the hardest. A few figures demonstrate the extent and severity of the phenomenon:

> It directly concerns 480 million people and threatens nearly one billion individuals throughout he world;
> 3.6 billion hectares of arid land are affected by desertification and each year more than 10 million additional hectares deteriorate (total arable land is around 180 million hectares);
> 50 billion dollars are lost each year (loss of grain harvests) due to land deterioration. International trade of agricultural products (imports and exports combined) reached 135 billion dollars in 2005. The bulk of losses is concentrated in DCs where animal husbandry and farming play a key role.

III. Dramatic consequences

Repercussions of the rural exodus are extremely serious for the countries affected and could change the daily lives of their entire populations.

The emergence of megalopolises. The combination of these two factors contributes to intense and unbridled urbanization, essentially in the DCs. For example, the Nigerian city of Lagos will have more than 17 million inhabitants in 2015 whereas it was home to only 288,000 people in 1950. At the same time the population of Bombay (India) will probably increase tenfold (from 2.3 to 22.6 million people).

Such large migratory flows make it almost impossible to build the necessary infrastructures to accommodate these populations: as a result, shanty towns represent most urban growth in southern hemisphere towns. The population of these highly disadvantaged neighborhoods accounts for 80% of the total urban population of sub-Saharan Africa and 75% of Southern Asia.

Moreover, this rural exodus is not caused by a shortage of labor in industry or the service sector. These gigantic cities also have very high unemployment rates, dramatic health conditions and other problems such as rising crime rates.

A serious disorganization of production means. This plethora of departures could weaken the fragile balance of food supplies because a sharp increase in the number of urban consumers drains off a significant share of agricultural labor without providing anything in exchange. In sub-Saharan Africa, back-breaking manual labor often offsets the low technical level of agriculture. Agriculture therefore suffers from the exodus of laborers. An improvement in the capacity to import food is not a viable option when we consider the weak potential for industrial exports in most of the countries in this part of Africa.

The liberalization of agricultural markets recommended by the WTO would force, moreover, the DCs to make an abrupt transition that must be compared with the extremely gradual evolution of rich countries. In the absence of any facilitating mechanisms and sufficient financial means, they would have great difficulty meeting the objectives of the Doha round, which is ironically considered as the development round.

The rural exodus is always heartbreaking for those who can no longer make a living from their work. It is also a major problem in the DCs because it promotes the emergence of serious economic and social situations.

But there are solutions available as illustrated by the example of Chile, through the promotion of fruit crops and export-oriented businesses, or Ghana, where the energy invested in the production of cocoa has led to the return of 2 million Ghanaians who had immigrated to Nigeria.

In the end, the best way to promote the maintenance of peasant-farmers on their land and to alleviate the pressure on urban areas is to intensify investment in agriculture: recent studies clearly demonstrate the superior efficiency of agriculture in reducing poverty compared to other economic sectors. Its role is also essential in terms of food security and distribution of the population since agriculture employs more than 2/3 of laborers in the countries concerned.

The recent recognition by the World Bank2 of the driving role of agriculture in the fight against poverty is an encouraging sign and supports the initiative of WOAgri in promoting world regulation of agriculture and agricultural exchanges. The NAR model will be able to measure the real impact of liberalization by taking into account the effects on the decrease of poverty and sustainable development. The NAR rating agency will notify international public decision-makers of the dangers that certain agricultural policies represent for the environment and food security.

This system will enable us to provide the conditions for the emergence of an international cooperation for agriculture so that all peasant-farmers can make a living from their work while respecting social and environmental standards and guaranteeing food security. This way we can better evaluate the orientation of international choices in order to find the proper balance between free trade and development aid so that, instead of creating even more difficulties for poor countries, we manage to create the necessary dynamics to promote their agriculture.

Jérémie Bianco

1 The drop in agricultural jobs in these countries has continued, reaching 2.98 % in 2005.
2 See the annual report on development scheduled for publication in September 2007.
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Paris, 24 May 2019