By Rosemary Vargas-Lundius
Out-migration of youth population from rural areas has been an unavoidable part of its structural transformation towards increased agricultural productivity and economic development. Migration to urban centres or abroad can potentially create new livelihood opportunities for young people, which in turn could contribute to rural development through financial as well as social remittances, i.e. new skills, attitudes, ideas.
However, migration is not always the preferred choice among rural youth since it often involves a great deal of personal sacrifice and uncertainty. Often young rural women and men arriving in the urban centres find that they lack the education and networks to compete for decent jobs in already saturated job markets. Many young people would prefer to remain in rural areas if they had the chance to access better education, adequate training, decent employment and services. Therefore, opportunities need to be created for young women and men in rural areas, so that migration remains a choice and not a necessity. Moreover, it is important to ensure that, should they decide to migrate, they are equipped with adequate skills and information to access gainful employment in urban areas or abroad.
Challenges in the rural milieu
Young women and men in the rural areas are faced with a number of challenges. Underemployment, poor working conditions and the prevalence of working poverty among young people present even more stark challenges than unemployment, and become a disincentive for rural youth to continue to live and work in their local communities.
Deficiencies in rural education and training programmes hinder young rural people’s capacity to acquire the necessary skills for contributing to the development of the rural and agricultural sector. Especially for young rural girls, gender gaps in participation, gender biased curricula and learning environments, lack of appropriate facilities all undermine the opportunities for young rural women to gain the education they need.
Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that young people view agricultural work as a last resort option, offering scant rewards in terms of income generation. It is thus not surprising that many young people view migration to cities as a viable livelihood option, even in the absence of relevant skills.
This exodus of young people is resulting in an ageing rural population in several developing countries. In some provinces of China, for example, the average age of farmers is 45-50 years. In many parts of Asia and Africa, remittances from migrants are overtaking agriculture as a main income source.
For those young people who do decide to migrate there is a lack of infrastructure to facilitate their transition, such as support networks or information preparing them for the situation they are likely to face upon their arrival in cities. As a result, many find themselves in precarious and often exploitative arrangements. This situation is especially stark for young women, who face a range of additional dangers including trafficking, especially for sexual purposes, which afflicts around 2.5 million people globally, predominantly affecting young women between the ages of 18-24.
A way forward
Rural youth migration and employment issues are intrinsically connected to wider rural development issues such as weak institutional capacity, deficient macroeconomic policies and poor governance. However, youth initiatives in rural areas appear mostly to be ad hoc and disconnected from initiatives and policies to redress macroeconomic and structural problems. There is a need to systematically mainstream youth issues into broader development policies and programme cycles. What is most important is to hear young people’s aspirations and needs. Only in this way can meaningful discussion about migration and youth employment take place.
Reforming rural education systems, and integrating the private sector in designing and implementing demand driven training programmes for young women and men will create new opportunities for young rural people. Investments in new frontiers such as renewable energy, green jobs and climate smart agriculture can also expand the range of options available to young rural people, as can fostering partnerships among governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) to promote financial literacy and access to resources by youth.
Promotion of decent employment approaches, such as labour rights and social security should complement employment generation programmes. Targeted initiatives to improve the quality of rural employment such as monitoring and regulation of working conditions, implementation of innovative social protection mechanisms and facilitating the organisation of young rural workers to enable their participation in decision-making processes, are all important aspects of this process. Farmers’ organisations should also promote and facilitate young rural people’s participation in their own structures, giving them space to make their concerns be heard.
An enabling policy environment with innovative, forward-looking, gender sensitive rural development policies can result in incentives for young people to remain in their rural communities or return home, contributing to national agricultural and rural development goals.
Rosemary Vargas-Lundius is a Senior Researcher in the Strategy and Knowledge Management Department of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and a member of the Consortium Advisory Group of Migrating out of Poverty.