Building resilience in the Near East and North Africa

9 September 2016 – The world is changing rapidly across urban and rural areas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region and the Newly Independent States (NIS) which have been going through far-reaching economic and political transitions.

In some NENA countries, for example, conflict has impoverished rural dwellers, while ill-designed subsidies and agricultural schemes have failed to meet expectations. In NIS (part of the former Soviet Union), State ownership has been largely undone, creating agri-businesses but also a vital small farm sector in which farming skills and support mechanisms are weak. Across both subregions, increasingly harsh droughts or floods, and related losses in productivity and incomes, have hampered rural transformation.

On 14 September, IFAD launches its flagship publication, Rural Development Report 2016: Fostering Inclusive Rural Transformation. The report provides extensive insight into the future development of rural communities and brings together leading thinkers to analyse lessons learned from experiences across the globe, and to look at rural development in a new way.

In the run-up to the launch, Khalida Bouzar, IFAD’s Director for the Near East, North Africa, Europe and Central Asia (NEN), analyses the challenges and opportunities for rural communities in the region and makes a case for inclusive transformation to bring rural people into the economic mainstream and enable them to reap the benefits of development.

Q: What are the challenges facing rural people today in the region?

“This region is unique as it straddles three continents and four sub-regions, so the challenges are many but also quite different for each country. In the NENA region, the most visible challenge is forced displacement and the numbers continue to rise with a current total of nearly 22.4 million refugees and migrants (of 65 million displaced worldwide) – with a vast majority of the displaced in just three host countries, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“Another challenge is the currency depreciation in the Caucasus and Central Asia as a result of the global economic crisis, which has led to an increase in poverty levels. In Georgia, for example, there has been a 30 per cent currency depreciation.

“There is also a growing rural-urban divide and greater income inequality. Another major challenge is the youth bulge and youth unemployment which, at 30 per cent in the region, is higher than any other region in the world.”

Q: Why do you believe rural transformation is an effective way to overcome poverty?

“Rural transformation can help improve performance in agriculture, especially in productivity. It is a well-proven and good approach for tackling poverty. Revenue from agriculture can trigger economic development in rural areas with services through agro-processing sectors and the capacity to absorb demand for labour.

"GDP growth stemming from agriculture is three to four times more conducive to poverty alleviation. Governments need to allocate more resources to agricultural development; but government resources need to be complemented by private sector investments so that we can create more inclusive and sustainable growth.”

Q: The 2030 Agenda is a global commitment to “leave no one behind” in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. Nowhere is this challenge more pertinent than in rural areas. What do you think needs to be done to support small farmers in feeding an expanding global population?

“The future of global food security rests in the hands of smallholder farmers. The 2030 Agenda is indeed very challenging mainly because we have to address the fact that fragility and instability are the number one cause of poverty and food insecurity. In our day-to-day work, our motto is exactly that: “leave no one behind”.

"This is not new to IFAD as we are inclusive and design and implement our projects in a consultative manner. Through our work, communities, cooperatives, civil society, and the advocacy we do globally, we bring the voice of the marginalized people from rural to national to international forums. We aim to put rural people into the driver’s seat of their own future.

"We need more investments in rural areas to link farmers to markets, build small-scale infrastructure which is often lacking, and introduce the appropriate technologies for smallholders to produce more and better, as well as more investments in research, etc. We consider family farming as a business that can transform rural societies.”

Q: What can IFAD do improve the plight of refugees and migrants?

“An important need that came out of the recent World Humanitarian Summit is that the world needs to work hand-in-hand with aid agencies and institutions, and cannot stop doing development work due to the ongoing crises.

"We should complement each other and work together to prepare refugees and migrants to return to their homes and for a better future. The crisis of forced displacement has a strong rural dimension. Large numbers of displaced people originate in rural areas and are now living in rural host communities. The consequences of this includes degradation of agricultural land and collapse in food production in the areas left behind, and increased pressure on natural resources, food security and agricultural production systems in host communities, as well as increased competition for jobs.

"With almost half of IFAD's ongoing operations in countries with fragile and conflict-affected situations, IFAD has decades of experience working with displaced persons, host communities, and returnees. Today IFAD is well positioned to serve as a key partner to bridge the gap between humanitarian and sustainable development responses in rural areas and is already actively engaged in many of the most affected regions. Many ongoing IFAD projects in the region have found themselves working with communities increasingly affected by these issues, where needs and vulnerabilities are increasing and changing, and where failure to provide sufficient support may result in further destabilization; so business-as-usual is not an option."

Q: How can IFAD achieve rural transformation through strong agricultural policies?

“IFAD focuses its support on policies – we test them on the ground, go from the bottom to the top, bridging the gap. For example, through a specialized microfinance programme of the Agricultural Bank of Sudan called the ABSUMI model which was developed together with IFAD and the Central Bank of Sudan, rural people received microfinance and financial services. Until now, ABSUMI has served more than 29,000 households in six states and disbursed loans for a total value of US$14 million (SDG 90 million), with repayment rates close to 98 per cent. This rural microfinance pilot has been scaled up throughout Sudan, and is now recognized under the new microfinance policy of the Central Bank of Sudan. This was done by bringing in the voice of the rural people. We brought it to a national level, then it was adopted by the Government, and is implemented because it is owned by people in communities.

“Policies are good, but not when they remain in a drawer – they have to be implementable and owned by those they are meant to help.”

About the Report

The Rural Development Report, IFAD’s flagship publication, is a rallying call to policymakers and development practitioners to end poverty and hunger in all its forms everywhere. The report looks at how to bring rural people into the economic mainstream and how to transform rural areas so that development is not only inclusive but also socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Stay tuned for the launch of the report on 14 September and follow the conversation online at #ruraltransformation.