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Supporting smallholder farmers: are we leaving the poorest people behind?

My return from maternity leave has coincided with the launch of Save the Children’s new campaign on child hunger and our new report A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition.

The campaign comes at a time when agriculture has worked its way back up to the top of the development agenda.

The report covers a huge range of issues, one of which is the links between agriculture, food systems and nutrition.

One of the hottest topics is the role of smallholder farmers, and particularly the opportunity to reduce poverty by better linking smallholder farmers to markets.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agriculture and Food has just released a report called Growing out of Poverty and it was calling for submissions of evidence about the opportunity to bring smallholder farmers into global supply chains in a more inclusive way.

No ‘silver bullet’ solutions

We are glad to see this focus on smallholder farmers because they are certainly an important part of the solution to reduce rural poverty.

But we are worried that there is a tendency to assume that linking smallholder farmers to markets is a ‘silver bullet’ solution for rural poverty.

What about the millions of very poor people, either landless or without access to sufficient land, who don’t have the option to ‘grow their way’ out of poverty?

Save the Children is concerned that current debates do not take sufficient account of the millions of people in rural areas who rely on paid employment – often for very low pay and in appalling conditions – for their only source of livelihood.

Quite simply, for a very large proportion of the rural poor, the solution is not to grow more but to work more.

The data sometimes lies

It is a common mistake to underestimate the role that paid work plays in rural economies, in part because of the way official statistics report data on employment.

This stems from the fact that classifying workers by their ‘main activity’ typically misses large numbers of casual wage earners.

Save the Children’s own research (which can be found in this ILO working paper) confirms that official statistics grossly underestimate the role that waged labour plays in rural economies.

If we relied on official statistics in Ethiopia, for example, we would think that just 3.6% of people in rural areas were paid employees.

But Save the Children did its own research in Ethiopia and found that in three of the four regions we studied, paid employment working for other people is the single largest source of income (in cash or in kind) for very poor people.

And, similarly in Rwanda, according to official surveys only 6% of Rwandans are in paid employment.

But our research shows that the poorest people rely on waged farm labour for up to 95% of their income.

More and better work for the rural poor

To fully address rural poverty, we must take steps to better understand the situation of people relying on casual work.

This will mean designing policies and programmes to increase the quantity of work available in these areas and to improve the quality and remuneration associated with the work that people do find.

It is time for more attention to be paid to those in rural areas who may not have sufficient land or resources to ‘grow more’, and instead need more and better employment opportunities.

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