Published in June 2023
Social justice for rural populations means prosperity for the planet
With almost half of the world’s population living in rural areas, rural economies play a significant role in eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring food security and creating decent jobs.
With the right policies in place, rural areas can be attractive places to work and live, as well as springboards for inclusive and sustainable development. To make this happen, we need to place social justice and decent work at the centre of efforts to revitalize and transform rural economies.
Explore this InfoStory to learn more about how to advance social justice and decent work in rural economies.
Rural economies’ potential to create decent jobs is often overlooked
Rural areas are home to the vast majority of the planet’s land, water and other natural resources. Since much of our food is produced in rural areas, they play a key role in ensuring food security, especially in view of the increasing food demands that come with a growing world population.
At the same time, many other diverse economic activities take place in rural areas – these range from agri-processing to tourism and manufacturing. Through digital connectivity, new opportunities can flourish there.
Rural areas also have an important contribution to make to the transition to environmentally sustainable economies and societies. With the green transformation, new and decent jobs can thrive in sectors such as clean energy and environmental protection.
Poverty and inequalities are preventing rural areas from achieving their full potential
Globally, poverty continues to be overwhelmingly rural
Seven out of ten people living in extreme poverty reside in rural areas. Many people in rural areas are deprived from access to health, education and a decent standard of living.
Two thirds of the extremely poor are engaged in agriculture, which employs a sizeable share of rural workers, especially in developing countries.
Inequalities between rural and urban areas are increasing
If inequalities are left unaddressed, there is the risk that a significant share of the rural population will be left behind. This can fuel discontent and destabilize societies.
Moreover, in certain countries rural workers face governance gaps, informality, underdeveloped production systems and limited access to services, infrastructure and social protection. In addition, given their reliance on natural resources, many rural livelihoods are directly exposed to the impacts of climate change.
All these challenges perpetuate a widespread misbelief that “rural” equates with backwardness and isolation.
Global trends and multiple crises have lasting impacts on rural communities
Demographic trends and urbanization
In many countries, the youth bulge offers a window of opportunity to accelerate rural development, if the right policies are in place to foster young people’s access to decent jobs. Rural areas have also gained an important role as home and host to migrants and displaced populations.
In other countries, migration of workers to cities, population loss and ageing in rural areas have become structural issues. However, rural areas can tap into the potential of stronger rural–urban linkages, involving greater flows of goods and people, as well as information, finance and social networks. This can help facilitate economic diversification as well as increase employment opportunities, while improving access to information, skills and services for those living and working in rural areas.
The benefits of technology and the impacts of overlapping crises
Technology can make a huge contribution to economic, social and environmental benefits in rural areas. For instance, digital technology can help boost agricultural productivity, as well as promote job opportunities that go beyond the farm economy.
However, technological advances must be inclusive, helping all rural workers and employers. Digital solutions need to be accessible and affordable, and investment in rural connectivity and skills development should be a top priority.
Conflicts, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have laid bare pre-existing challenges in rural areas. One such challenge is food supply. The world is not on track to meet the commitment of ending hunger by 2030, and rural economies are under enormous pressure because of the food crisis.
At the same time, the transformational potential of a just transition in rural economies remains largely untapped.
Rural areas need to be revitalized – but how?
We have the opportunity to seize the momentum to trigger transformative change and advance towards dynamic, inclusive and resilient rural economies.
To accomplish this, we need to place decent work and social justice at the centre of policy efforts. What is vital is to take a proactive approach that is human-centred.
Policies for rural areas that put people first
International labour standards, supported by social dialogue, are critical for the recovery and revitalization of rural economies. This necessitates a human-centred, rights-based approach to rural transformation that ensures the respect of fundamental principles and rights at work.
Key international labour standards relevant to the promotion of decent work in the rural economy include the Right of Association (Agriculture) Convention, 1921 (No. 11), the Rural Workers' Organisations Convention, 1975 (No. 141) and the Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184).
Increased social dialogue can help build the foundations for rural areas to prosper. Stronger worker and employer organizations as well as national and local governments are needed to achieve the best policy mix for rural revitalization. Governments and social partners can also play an active role in promoting a positive image of rural areas, raising awareness about their potential.
Women and young people are key agents of change in rural areas
To ensure that the voices of rural women and young people are heard, policy development processes need to better reflect their needs. The goal should be more and better decent job opportunities for all.
This is urgent in view of the growing demand for food and the much-needed generational renewal in agriculture and rural areas. Promoting decent jobs for women and young people in rural areas will also address their overrepresentation in vulnerable employment and unemployment.
How the ILO is advancing social justice and decent work for rural populations
The ILO has been working on rural issues since 1921 through numerous programmes, initiatives and partnerships.
The ILO continues to build on this foundation by assisting governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations to build a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive transformation of rural economies.
Drawing lessons from earlier crises, we can better anticipate and respond to the potential impacts of global crises on rural economies, and in the process ensure that no one is left behind.
Looking ahead, policies for advancing social justice and decent work in rural economies should better reflect a more volatile, uncertain and complex world, with evolving social, economic, environmental and technological realities.