[imgcontainer right] [img:uncover.gif] The 2010 United Nations report on rural poverty. [/imgcontainer]

Editor’s Note: Every ten years the United Nations publishes a study of rural poverty around the world.

The latest edition came out earlier this month and the news was good — or maybe we should say better. World poverty rates have fallen.  

We have summarized the report below. It’s quite lengthy. There are chapters about different development schemes and stories from people living in rural areas around the world. You can download the whole report here.

Food Prices, Agriculture and Rural Development

Between 2006 and 2008, international food prices doubled.

The effects of the price surge reverberated globally, though the worst hit were low-income, food-deficit countries with meagre stocks. In total, about 100 million poor rural and urban people were pushed into the ranks of the world’s hungry.

While international food prices have declined since mid-2008, they are still substantially higher than prior to the price surge, and they are likely to remain at 2010 levels or higher for the next decade.

To date, much of the production response to higher prices has come from rich countries. Looking to the future, however, it is calculated that feeding a global population of just over 9 billion in 2050 will require a 70 per cent increase in global food production, while ensuring food security for all will demand that issues of access and affordability are also addressed. 

This will require that agriculture – particularly smallholder agriculture – play a much more effective role in these countries, and that greater and more effective efforts are made to address the concerns of poor rural people as food buyers.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in agriculture as a key driver of development and poverty reduction. And in the aftermath of the food price surge, a number of global initiatives have emerged that seek to revitalize agriculture in developing countries. 

At the same time, growing attention is being given both to issues of adaptation to climate change in smallholder agriculture, and to ways in which poor rural people can participate in, and benefit from, market opportunities linked to environmental services and climate change mitigation. 

Also, the role of the state in agriculture and rural poverty reduction is being reassessed, and there is new interest in thinking through the role that public policies and investment can play in mitigating market volatility and assuring national food security. 

There is broad agreement that growth in agriculture usually generates the greatest improvements for the poorest people – particularly in poor, agriculture-based economies. This report recognizes that agriculture, if better suited to meeting new environmental and market risks and opportunities facing smallholders, can remain a primary engine of rural growth and poverty reduction. And this is particularly true in the poorest countries. 

In all countries, however, creating new opportunities for rural poverty reduction and economic growth requires a broad approach to rural development, which includes the rural non-farm economy as well as agriculture. A healthy agricultural sector is often critical for stimulating diversified rural growth. But there are also new, non-agricultural drivers of rural growth emerging in many contexts, which can be harnessed. 

Measuring rural poverty and hunger 

A starting point for understanding rural poverty is having an idea of who is rural and who is urban.

This is less straightforward than it seems: the definition of what is urban and what is rural is fraught with difficulties. Having said that, it is clear that urbanization is happening rapidly in developing countries – in all regions urban populations increased between 20 per cent and 60 per cent between 1995 and 2005.

For the moment, the population of the developing world remains more rural than urban: around 55 per cent of the total population, or 3.1 billion people, are rural, and the numbers continue to grow. In the years between 2020 and 2025 two major demographic changes will take place: first, the rural population will peak, after which the total number of rural people will start to decline; and second, the developing world’s urban population will overtake the rural population.


In Latin America and the Caribbean, and in East and South East Asia, the numbers of rural people are already in decline, and eventually they will be everywhere. Although the rural population will not start to decline until around 2025 in the Middle East and North Africa and in South and Central Asia, and around 2045 in sub-Saharan Africa, the rates at which rural populations are growing are already slowing down in all regions.

Poverty Remains a Rural Problem

Despite this historic shift towards urbanization, poverty remains largely a rural problem, and a majority of the world’s poor will live in rural areas for many decades to come. Of the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty (defined as those living on less than $1.25/day) in 2005, approximately 1 billion – around 70 per cent – lived in rural areas.

In East Asia the rural share of total poverty has been reduced to just over 50 per cent, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa, the most urbanized regions, a majority of the poor now live in urban areas.

In South Asia, South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, over three-quarters of the poor live in rural areas, and the proportion is barely declining, despite urbanization. Today, a little less than 35 per cent of the total rural population of developing countries is classified as extremely poor, down from around 54 per cent in 1988; while the corresponding percentage for the $2/day poverty line is now just above 60 per cent, down from over 80 per cent in 1988.

This is mainly due to a massive reduction in rural poverty in East Asia, where today the incidence of rural poverty is around 15 per cent for the $1.25/day line and 35 per cent for the $2/day line. 

Rural poverty has declined more slowly in South Asia, where the incidence is still more than 45 per cent for extreme poverty and over 80 per cent for $2/day poverty, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 60 per cent of the rural population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and almost 90 per cent lives on less than $2/day.


In Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa the incidence of extreme rural poverty is less than 10 and 5 per cent respectively, with declines in both regions over the past decade (even though one-fifth of the rural population in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in eight in the Middle East and North Africa, live on less than $2/day). 

Rural Poverty Has Decreased

The figure of 1 billion poor rural people represents a substantial decline in rural poverty numbers – down from almost 1.4 billion in the late 1980s. This has been largely due to the extraordinarily fast decline in the numbers of rural poor in East Asia (particularly China), to about 120 million poor rural people today; and in South East Asia, where numbers have declined to around 80 million. 

South Asia has by far the largest number of poor rural people (over 500 million), though in sub-Saharan Africa, where the numbers are increasing, there are now some 300 million poor rural people. 

In Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa there are only 11 and 6 million people respectively living in extreme poverty; although the figures are likely to be considerably higher when poverty is measured against national poverty lines rather than against the internationally comparable $1.25/day poverty line.

Among the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, there is a significant group, sometimes known as the ‘ultra-poor’, who are well below the poverty line. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), there were half a billion people living on less than $0.75 a day in 2004. Around 80 per cent of these people lived in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and the very poorest overwhelmingly in sub-Saharan Africa; most of them are rural.

Number of Hungry Rising

According to (the Food and Agriculture Organization), the numbers of undernourished people have been on the increase since the mid-1990s. Following the food price and economic crises, in 2009 the number of hungry people reached a billion for the first time in history. 


With improved economic growth and a decline in food prices, the figure declined in 2010 to 925 million. However, this was still higher than the figure in 2008 and, at 16 per cent of the total population in the developing world, the rate was scarcely any lower than it had been a decade earlier. 

Children are disproportionately among the malnourished, a fact that has severe consequences for their future development and that of their households and societies. In all developing regions children in rural areas are more likely to be hungry than children living in cities and towns. In 2008, the ratio was 1.4 underweight rural children for every 1 underweight urban child in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; around 2.5:1 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in the Middle East; and in East Asia, where the ratio was most unbalanced, children in rural areas were almost five times as likely to be underweight as children in urban areas.

Child malnutrition is highly correlated with gender inequalities at the household level, and linked to other factors such as poor availability of safe water and sanitation infrastructure.

What Needs To Be Done

Ten years into the new millennium, there are something like one billion poor rural people in the world. Yet as we noted at the outset, the changing circumstances that have emerged, perhaps most clearly, around the recent food price crisis show that there are good and sometimes new reasons for hope that rural poverty can be reduced stably, if new opportunities for rural growth are nurtured, and the risk environment is improved.

It is largely evident that this requires a more comprehensive approach to rural growth, in which both agriculture – notably a more sustainable, more modern and profitable agriculture – and the rural non-farm economy play a role.

This report has also made it clear that implementing this agenda requires a collective effort, including new partnerships and new ways of working between governments, the private sector, civil society and rural people’s organizations, with the international development community playing a supporting or facilitating role as needed. If all of these stakeholders want it enough, rural poverty can be substantially reduced. 

What is at stake is not only the present for one billion rural people and the prospects for food security for all, but also the rural world and the opportunities within it that tomorrow’s rural generation will inherit.

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