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Making sure rural communities won't be left behind in the response to COVID-19

02 April 2020

Whenever crisis strikes, it is invariably the poor and the vulnerable who suffer most. In many cases, they are affected directly by crisis; in other cases, their lives are made harder by the economic consequences. Often it is both. We have seen this time and time again.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we are obviously concerned about the impacts on the poor rural people we serve. It is not yet clear to what extent COVID-19 will spread to the rural communities of developing countries, where more than three quarters of the world’s poorest people live – but we already know that rural livelihoods are being deeply affected.

IFAD is taking steps so that rural women and men can continue to grow food and not fall into deeper poverty during this challenging time. And we call on our partners – especially governments, multilateral agencies, international financial institutions, the private sector, and civil society groups – to work with us for a coordinated global response.

Regional trends

The situation is highly dynamic. At present, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the regions where IFAD works is most acute in Asia and the Pacific. At the same time, the Near East, North Africa and Central Europe region, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean, are also experiencing alarming increases in prevalence. In terms of the number of cases, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have been relatively less affected so far. But measures to prevent the spread of the virus here, as well as knock-on economic impacts from the global economy, are already affecting local people.

How COVID-19 is impacting rural people

The effects that COVID-19 has on people fall into three general categories: economic effects, social effects, and the direct impact of the virus itself. The way these effects are translating into rural contexts needs particular consideration.

In rural communities, access to safe, clean water is often lacking. Rural people, like all people, need to be able to wash their hands to protect themselves from the virus. But without clean water, many can’t. And small-scale farmers need to work according to the climate – they can’t afford to stay inside. Nor can they afford to stop producing food – the food they grow is needed more than ever.

As another alarming effect, medicine and health care are less likely to be accessible to rural people who catch the virus. But with COVID-19, anyone who develops serious illness needs treatment within hours.

Restrictions on trade and movement are already making it difficult for small-scale farmers to access markets, both to obtain essential inputs such as seeds and to sell final products. In some places, the lack of availability of seasonal labour will impede production, especially for labour-intensive foods such as fruits and vegetables. In addition, the availability of non-farm work that many rural households rely on to diversify their incomes is likely to shrink, as are incomes from remittances.

It will be the most marginal and poor groups who suffer the most – among them, rural women and young people. School closures and the need to care for sick family members will increase the workloads of many women. Many women will also suffer as unemployment rises, as their current work is more likely to be under informal and precarious working conditions. Similarly, young people, who have greater difficulty than older adults in finding decent jobs, are even more likely to become excluded and disenfranchised.

Protecting and enabling the most vulnerable in a time of crisis

As we respond to the crisis, we are driven by the principles ensuring that IFAD's support is feasible, flexible and does no harm. And we are reaching out to our partners – both at country and global level – to ensure coordinated actions.

We have already started repurposing resources wherever possible within our projects to protect the lives and livelihoods of rural people. We are providing immediate needs such as seeds and fertilizer and linking farmers to buyers at a time when movement restrictions are closing down some local markets. And we are working with farmers and microfinance providers to provide flexible options that allow farmers to access and repay loans during the crisis. We are also looking at a major initiative to expand our support to digital platforms servicing rural communities at a time when normal access to information is difficult. And we are adjusting the way we work so we can respond quickly and flexibly.

We cannot allow the COVID-19 crisis to undo years of good work in reducing rural poverty. At this challenging time, we are reminded of the importance of international cooperation and of the need for a strong global multilateral system – one that responds to the immediate impacts of the crisis while also protecting the needs of the most vulnerable groups. In our collective global COVID-19 response, we need to make sure no one – and no community – is left behind.