Most Of World’s Poorest Still Live In Rural Areas, Despite Progress Over Last Decade, U.N. Report Says

A report from the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) found that approximately 350 million people living in rural areas have escaped extreme poverty over the past decade, but most of the world’s poorest citizens continue to live in rural regions, the BBC reports (Melik, 12/6).

About 70 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty reside in rural areas, according to the findings. The report, which was released on Monday, “found an overall decline of extreme poverty – people living on less than $1.25 per day – in rural areas over the past decade, from 48 percent to 34 percent,” the U.N. News Centre writes (12/6).

“Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly a third of the world’s extremely poor rural people, whose numbers swelled from 268 million to 306 million over the past decade,” according to an IFAD press release. Though sub-Saharan Africa’s “rate of extreme poverty in rural areas declined from 65 to 62 percent, it remains by far the highest of any region,” the release notes. South Asia currently has 500 million people living in rural areas – the largest number of people any region even – though South Asia’s rural poverty rates dropped “slightly” over the last 10 years, the release states, adding that “[f]our-fifths of all extremely poor people in South Asia live in rural areas.”

The report highlights “[r]emarkable progress in rural areas of East Asia – primarily China – where the number of extreme poor fell by about two-thirds over the past decade, from 365 million to 117 million, as did the rate of extreme poverty, which fell from 44 [percent] to 15 percent” (12/6). “Other regions where there have been major declines are South East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa,” Agence France-Presse reports.

Declines in poverty have been “mainly due to increased production and higher levels of private investment in the farming sector, as well as increased urbanisation across the developing world, economists from the Rome-based IFAD said. Greater productivity of farmers and higher global food prices have also helped, as has the increase in farm market information available to small farmers in remote areas of the developing world using mobile phone technology,” the news service writes (Thuburn, 12/6). 

The report, which “calls for greater investment in agriculture and efforts to boost livelihoods,” highlights “increasingly volatile food prices, the uncertainties and effects of climate change, and a range of natural resource constraints” as factors that could “further complicate efforts to reduce rural poverty,” the U.N. News Centre writes. But it also “emphasizes that changes in agricultural markets are giving rise to new and promising opportunities for the developing world’s smallholder farmers to significantly boost their productivity, which will be necessary to ensure enough food for an increasingly urbanized global population estimated to reach at least 9 billion by 2050” (12/6).

“Ongoing changes in agricultural markets offer new hope that major progress can be made in combating rural poverty,” said report author Ed Heinemann, Inter Press Service reports. “The rapid growth of urban centres, particularly in capital cities, and of urban populations’ incomes means a growing demand for higher value products, and opens the possibility to access to more remunerative market for smallholders,” he said. Governments, international organizations and other donors “should invest in rural areas and help rural farmers to improve their infrastructure and governance, and to reduce their transaction costs,” Heinemann said, adding, “these actors also need to have a mentoring role to help poor rural people avoid and manage the risks they face – from natural disasters to insecurity of access to land, and greater volatility of food prices.” 

“The food price shocks a few years ago were a wake up call that, with global population growth and the movement of more people into cities, higher and more uncertain food prices could become a fact of life,” Kanayo Nwanze, IFAD’s president, said in the press release. “But this also means that smallholder agriculture – if it is productive, commercially oriented and well linked to modern markets – can offer the developing world’s rural people a route out of poverty as they become part of the solution to global food security challenges,” he added (12/6).

The report also found that for women farmers, “who produce most of the food that is consumed locally in rural areas,” the situation has not changed much since IFAD’s last report in 2001, IPS reports before highlighting some of those findings (Zaccaro, 12/6).

The KFF Daily Global Health Policy Report summarized news and information on global health policy from hundreds of sources, from May 2009 through December 2020. All summaries are archived and available via search.

KFF Headquarters: 185 Berry St., Suite 2000, San Francisco, CA 94107 | Phone 650-854-9400
Washington Offices and Barbara Jordan Conference Center: 1330 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005 | Phone 202-347-5270 | Email Alerts: | |

The independent source for health policy research, polling, and news, KFF is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California.