How inclusive rural transformation will be crucial to promote sustainable and resilient societies

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How inclusive rural transformation will be crucial to promote sustainable and resilient societies

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©IFAD/Andrew Esiebo/Panos

The 2018 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) focuses on Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies. The Sustainable Development Goals relating to water (SDG6), energy (SDG7), human settlements (SDG11), responsible consumption and production (SDG12), life on land (SDG15) and partnerships (SDG17) will be under in-depth review. IFAD will highlight that the rural world – where most poor and hungry people live – deserves special attention.


Many rural communities in developing countries are vulnerable, fragile and lack resilience. There are many factors that contribute to this - weak institutions, conflicts over access to productive resources, degradation of natural resources, social tension and inequality, lack of employment opportunities for youth, poor access to basic services and exclusion from political processes.

Poverty and hunger are concentrated in rural areas, so investing in rural livelihoods is essential to eradicate poverty and achieve zero hunger – SDGs 1 and 2. This can only be achieved if the interests of rural people, including smallholder farmers, are integrated into discussions across all the SDGs.

Smallholders, food systems and sustainable and resilient societies

The way food is produced and consumed have implications for water and energy supply and demand, for the sustainability of food systems in human settlements, as well as for the way societies interact with land and ecosystems. Agriculture is a strategic sector for SDG 15 implementation because of its effects and its dependency on the natural environment, biodiversity and ecosystems. Investments and initiatives in these areas must be beneficial for the rural people who work in the sector and depend on it for their livelihoods.

Crucially for SDG 12, consumption and production patterns of food and other commodities shape the demand for goods that are primarily produced in rural areas. If urban populations demand locally produced, diverse and nutritious foods grown largely by small-scale rural producers, this represents an opportunity. And this could be expected to lead to more sustainable outcomes than alternatives based upon shifts to diets dominated by processed foods and associated food import models.

The planning around sustainable cities and human settlements in the context of SDG 11 will be critical for the functioning of food systems, environmental and ecosystem services employment and women’s empowerment, which will in turn shape the resilience and sustainability of societies. Food systems cut across rural and urban settlements, encompassing the interactions of people, natural resources, the climate, inputs, technology, institutions and infrastructure to shape outcomes in terms of food production and consumption, employment, social institutions and gender and the environment. This is why IFAD is including a wider range of local actors in its food system projects, for example by setting up District Value Chain Committees that link stakeholders in local agri-food value chains across rural and urban areas – including producers' organizations, district authorities, providers of services, inputs and finance and local buyers.

How can local employment be promoted while maintaining sustainable management and use of water and energy and enhancing biodiversity, food security and nutrition? Create linkages between rural and urban stakeholders, integrate value chains across rural and urban areas, and base diets on nutritious, diverse and locally produced food.

Water strategies must respond to the needs of rural people

Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 69 per cent of global water withdrawals, with irrigation systems accounting for the majority. Large-scale irrigation on large farms often exerts unsustainable pressure on local water supplies. It will be crucial in the context of SDG 6 implementation to extend support and investment to rainfed and small-scale irrigation systems, as an alternative, or to complement, to large-scale irrigation based on local agroecological conditions. This is especially so considering that, globally, rainfed agriculture remains the primary source of food production.

This means focusing on developing skills and capacities within water management institutions, from state to local institutional level. For small-scale irrigation, water use associations (WUOs) are often fundamental in managing the efficiency and equity of water access. These associations merit being recognized in national legislation, alongside acknowledgement of land rights for WUOs to enable them to carry out their roles. IFAD’s experience shows that initiatives to support rainfed and small-scale irrigation systems have high payoffs in terms of improving productivity and incomes, developing local agri-food value chains and safeguarding environmental services.

Linkages between water, energy, cities and rural areas

Urban planning influences the availability, use and quality of water and energy in rural areas. To realize SDG 7, much of the projected one-third increase in energy demand by 2035 will come from cities and must be satisfied by renewable sources. Bearing in mind the water intensity of emerging geothermal renewable energy generation systems, it will be essential that water for renewable generation does not negatively impact access to water for rural and farming populations.

Changes in land ownership in urban areas could also impact the availability and quality of water for downstream users outside city boundaries. Any infringement upon the land access rights of rural people as a result of urban sprawl will negatively impact the functioning of water use institutions, food production systems, as well as local biodiversity and ecosystems. Rural institutions also play a key role in managing water and other natural resources for the benefit of urban populations.

There are potential pay-offs in linking rural and urban natural resource users through institutional mechanisms that adopt ecosystem-wide approaches to natural resource management. This is the rationale behind the IFAD-supported Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund project, where rural land users are recognized as the stewards of good farming practices and conservation or restoration of natural areas that protect water at the source, while the downstream water users pay for these services, rather than paying for expensive industrial filtration.

Equally important is that investments extend to affordable energy for rural populations, who are often at a disadvantage. This will be needed to stimulate the development of profitable agricultural micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and growth in the rural economy. These are critical to stimulate economy-wide structural transformation.

Holistic approaches are needed to transform societies

The SDGs for sustainability of water, energy, human settlements, consumption and production, life on land and partnerships that are under review at HLPF 2018 offer crucial entry points to address the interests of rural stakeholders. Sustainable and inclusive societies can only be brought about through policy, investment and governance frameworks that adopt people-centred, holistic and multi-stakeholder approaches in which all voices are heard – including those of rural people, especially women, youth and smallholder farmers. Only in this way can systemic inequalities that undermine the sustainability and resilience of societies be addressed.


For a more detailed analysis, see the policy brief How inclusive rural transformation can promote sustainable and resilient societies.