By David Suttie, Global Policy Engagement Specialist, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Rural people often migrate seasonally with their herds, or to join the harvest in other districts. They frequently travel to towns and cities to trade, do temporary jobs, or advance their education.

In some regions of the world, nomadic cultures are commonplace. Migration is one of the most debated topics and policymakers are fully aware of how much people move around. What is lacking is reliable data – movement is very difficult to capture in official statistical systems.

Internal mobility is commonplace. Yet policy debates tend to focus on international mobility, which is more widely remarked in receiving countries, and spurs more news reports. Yet remittances from migrants within countries are often more important to supplementing rural incomes than those from far away – and have a bigger impact on relieving poverty.

As mobile phone masts, tarmac roads, power generators and cables advance into the countryside, mobility is playing a growing part in rural livelihoods. More importantly, the physical distance between towns and rural areas is also shrinking. Opportunities for seasonal and so-called circular migration, where the worker moves regularly between a home and host district, will continue to grow. In some areas commuting becomes commonplace. Small and intermediate towns are breaking down the rural-urban divide.

But why should rural people have to migrate to escape poverty? Migration should not be a necessity, but a choice made to better the situation of the individual or the family. It should not be leading to unemployment, poor working conditions, exploitation and crime, nor upending society and depriving children the chance to grow up with their parents.

To ensure migration remains a choice, rather than a necessity, we need to invest in rural areas. But modern economic history also teaches us that investment in agriculture and rural areas delivers not just productivity and income gains in agriculture, but faster growth elsewhere in the economy.

A group of local farmers thresh rice in a paddy field near Boiram village, Gambia.

Rural transformation drives inclusive rural-to-urban transitions

When farmers earn more, they have more money to buy farm inputs and services, and need access to financial services. As farms become more productive and integrated into value chains, rural areas need facilities for transport, produce processing and packaging. Profits become available to invest in other sectors of the economy too, kick-starting growth in rural areas. Growth in agriculture and food systems increases consumer spending on non-food consumables and spurs growth in the economy generally. Where agriculture is unproductive, economies often remain poor.

Mobility can contribute to rural (and urban) development

Rural transformation broadens choices for rural people and drives economic development. It can create opportunities for mobility (it is sometimes assumed that rural transformation stops people from deciding to move). From the other side, mobility can also contribute to rural transformation.

Rural transformation contributes to the development of thriving non-farm economies; skills development, technological progress and develops rural-urban links. Mobility both gives people more choices, and helps them become more prosperous.

As farms become more prosperous, and complex, entrepreneurs develop businesses to service their needs – often in local villages or towns. So it is important to invest rural communities along the value chain and to ensure entrepreneurs have the funds they need to grow their businesses.

Besides services such as storage, transport and packaging, smallholders need roads and transport systems, and institutional links to information and services.

A husband and wife tend their sheep outside of the village of Acopia, Peru.

Adapting to the needs of mobile people

People on the move need access to mobile information. Mobile networks and telephones, backed by content on apps and tools, are needed to supply information and services to migrants. Mobile phone apps are already reducing the cost of transferring remittances and payments to people in rural areas.

Against this backdrop, we need policies, institutions and investments that respond to mobility. Rather than making it hard for people to move, we need to remove barriers that make it harder for them to make the most of their time and become more productive.

Mobility is a legitimate, and often a smart, household strategy. If supported by governments, development agencies, and civil society, not to mention private business, mobility can contribute to better outcomes for households across both rural and urban areas.

Read the policy brief

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Suttie works as a Global Policy Engagement Specialist at IFAD. He is responsible for engaging in global policy processes, ensuring key rural dimensions and stakeholders – including smallholders, rural youth, rural women – are reflected in international policy debates and outcomes.