Conservation, Dispatch

Changing the future of migration: invest in food security and rural development

Next Monday is World Food Day and glad to see that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s theme for this year makes crystal clear the link between food insecurity / rural underdevelopment and the growth in international and internal migration.  

We are all familiar with the first of these types of migration, the ongoing conflict in Syria resulting in the largest movement of people since the Second World War, certainly in Europe. However, while international migrants are estimated by the FAO to number in the region of 244 million people, of which an estimated 20 million are refugees, by far the greater proportion of migrants are internal, which (as far back as 2013) is estimated to have stood at 763 million. ‘A large share of migrants,’ says the FAO, ‘originate from rural areas. In many African countries, more than 50% of rural households report having at least one internal migrant.’    

It’s an extraordinary statistic, and even more so given the fact that a significant number of internal migrants are still in their teens. As outlined in an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) profile report on Kenya, if ‘conflict, natural disaster, climate and environmental degradation, and forced evictions’ account for some of the movement, then it is ‘poverty, lack of development, and lack of opportunities in rural areas (that) are key drivers of out-migration.’ In fast growing populations such as is Kenya’s, it is the young who are most vulnerable to these drivers, the bulk of internal migrants being made up of 15 to 34 year olds looking for work, or better education opportunities, or moving – women in the main – for family reasons.    

Evidence collated by the FAO shows that they are right to do so, at least from the perspective of generating more money for their families. Earnings for migrants are double (or more) what they would receive at home, should they find employment. ‘Households,’ reports the FAO, ‘with internal and international migrants are wealthier and more educated than those without migrants.’ These findings, as the FAO says, may be skewered by the possibility that wealthier families are better positioned to afford the initial cost of paying for the migrating family member’s move; however, the evidence weighed, it pays to migrate, and while the young are most likely to be forced by need and circumstance to move, it is just as true to say that they are also, by virtue of age, the most likely to want to move.  

Even so, whatever the reward, the level and extent of sacrifice made is extraordinary. The infrastructures of destination cities are largely inadequate to the task of coping with such large numbers, and consequently silo in-migrants into informal settlements, where living conditions are poor to dire. According to the abovementioned IOM report, internal Kenyan migrants ‘face significant disadvantages with respect to morbidity, mortality, access to health services, and risky sexual behaviours.’  

It’s worth taking a moment to properly reflect on exactly what this means. According to Kibera UKNairobi is home to 200 such settlements, which together house 60% of the city’s 3.3 million, the largest being Kibera, and which has a population of 250,000. Only 20% of Kibera has electricity. The shacks are owned by 10% of the population, with landlords belonging either to its original Northern Kenyan / Nubian settlers or the Kikuyu. Tenants are drawn from many of Kenya’s other tribes, predominantly the Luo and Luhya, and rent 12 x 12-foot shacks for 700 Kenyan shillings (£6 / $8), which are generally shared with up to eight others. Ethnic tensions are exacerbated by the conditions, and especially so during elections, when tribal allegiances are harnessed by politics. A single toilet is shared between 50 shacks, and waste is disposed of by the residents themselves. Water is provided by the means of two pipes, and has to be collected, and costs. Half of those eligible to work are unemployed. These are terrifying statistics. 

Seen in this most stark of lights, the FAO’s push for improving food security and rural development comes none too soon. According to my father, Allen Jones, who spent most of his working life in Africa, employed by the UN World Food Programme, ‘investment in agricultural development – better yields and productivity, support infrastructure of roads, storage and electricity – is fundamental to achieving food security.’ Unfortunately, as he says, ‘there is a serious lack of investment in education and agriculture in Africa, and it has been left very late to catch up.’ The reasons for this he lays squarely and variously at the doors of colonial educational policy, chronic poor governance, and ‘widespread agricultural protection policies such as CAP’, subsidies paid Western farmers at the expense of the more competitive African producers. Poor education equals less opportunity equals the higher likelihood of the young voting on tribal (rather than policy) lines equals a compromised democracy equals poor governance and corruption equals less or no investment equals poor education.  It’s a viscous and institutionalised circle.    

Fortunately, however, the potential of Africa’s presently uncultivated lands – some 60% of the world’s – is enormous. ‘Small-holder farms,’ says Jones, ‘of less than two acres produce most of Africa’s food. This is where Africa can increase food production, create jobs and decrease poverty.’* Given the difficulties outlined above, how we go about doing this is beyond the scope of this blog, and frankly my own knowledge. I am not a political economist. However, I am certain that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and especially in Africa, which as the UN points out is the only continent to have adopted a common position on all 17 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals. Africa is the future, a continent in which internal migration (on the scale discussed) is a thing of the past. The challenge is how we get there – and at what cost. 

*How this sits with the need to conserve Africa’s wildernesses presents a significant challenge, and is a conversation for another time. Suffice to say, it is not insurmountable, given what we know today about biodiversity agricultural and agro-forestry methods, and given Africa’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda.


Photo Credit: Kibera, Colin Crowley under CC BY 2.0.

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