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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Rural migration, agriculture and rural development

Lal Manavado
Lal ManavadoUniversity of Oslo affiliate/Norwegian Directorate of HealthNorway

Comments on the draft Report on Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development

These comments represent a holistic approach to rural development with the emphasis on channelling migration to enhance food production and security with a view to improving public nutrition and quality of life. Improved public nutrition and food security can enable some potential and actual migrants to earn a decent income and ameliorate to a certain extent the undesirable consequences of migration.

The draft is very comprehensive with respect to the nomenclature of migration with reference to its specific motivators. As it is a piece of purposive behaviour, one would prefer to call what triggers it as a motivator rather than a driver, because the latter technically does not require an intentional decision from the object that changes its location.

I think it would be very useful if the report mentions at the outset i.e., in 1.1, its purpose. For instance, as migration results in a demographic depletion in one area while it increases the population density in another, it would inevitably have a sudden or gradual impact on food production and demand in the areas involved. Moreover, it places an increased strain on health, education, social and public security services, etc. Therefore, managing migration so as to enhance nutrition (agriculture and disposal of food) and food security in a manner that would ensure a decent livelihood particularly to the rural populations would amply repay the effort. Achieving this objective requires a holistic analysis of the problem with a view to designing a pragmatic means of its amelioration.

Before I go over to the other chapters of the draft, may I say that I feel the proposed format is a little top-heavy on the characterisation of migration, and I think while the remittances from the migrants may improve certain aspects of life of those who they leave behind and even some sectors of local economy, their impact on food production is negligible. There is no reliable data on this I know, and I also know that it is impossible to gather this information unless one is able and willing to spend an enormous amount of time and resources for obvious reasons. In connection with another enquiry, I became convinced of the dictum, the actual state of rural food production and nutrition can never be ascertained from cities nor can it be generalised on the basis of some chosen samples’.

In the ‘way forward’, I would suggest a clearer annunciation of our principal objective, and then the other objectives whose prior achievement is a necessary condition for attaining the former. These latter includes rural health care, education and training, etc., which in turn depend on there being an adequate access to appropriate irrigation, energy, water, rail and road transport, etc.

Once this is clearly presented, then we can proceed with ways and means. I advocated a layered approach to policy design and implementation so that they become increasingly less general and more specific with respect to the actual needs of their domain. Thus, at the village level, a village policy will be tailored to meet village specific issues within the framework of an integrated policy and implementational hierarchy, where each makes decisions on matters within one’s own experience and competence.

I know it would be impossible to revise the definition of migration as currently accepted, but it depends so heavily on enumeration and indefinable (objectively speaking) terms like ‘rural’ etc., it is liable to lead to hours of fruitless discussion. Therefore, I wish it is possible to talk about migration in generic terms referring to its motives and palpable results, i.e., ‘it represents the movement of one or more persons from one location to another motivated by the belief that one’s new location is more desirable than the former for some reason’. Please note that such a belief may not be not justifiable, based on misinformation, immediate threat to life, etc. This movement of people would necessarily deplete the stock of available labour in one place while increasing the need for various items and services in another.

1.3. Seems to expand in identifying the two principal reasons that makes migration to another location desirable, viz., economic or professional self-betterment and to escape some form of danger like physical violence, robbery, natural or man-made disasters, etc. Armed conflicts and break-down of law and order are undesirable primarily because of the physical violence and robbery, etc., that often accompany them. Next in importance is their impact on the necessary amenities and economy.

I would suggest reconsideration of 1.4., because the contextual framework it seems to offer has several flaws. Starting with its main thesis, the kind of ‘development’ that considers migration to be a necessary ingredient is the traditional view that is under attack for its cavalier attitude to the environment and failure to acknowledge that our quality of life cannot be sustained by technical innovations unless we strive towards a stable global population. Here, quality of life of the individual is to be ascertained with reference to the cultural norms to which one subscribes. This includes one’s food culture. After all, culture is recognised as an individual right.

Even though the question of population is politically sensitive, its resolution is vital. What constitutes environmentally benign ‘development’ is still debated. So, a pragmatic approach could be found if one’s level of ambition is limited to sustainable agriculture and ensuring food security as an environmentally benign way to retain people in situ and to attract recent migrants back home by making those activities a source of a decent livelihood. I think this is still feasible but there is not much time left, and we already have the know-how and the necessary resources to begin.

I think scope of the report in 1.5., ought to specify identifying what is needed to mitigate the burdens migration places on source and destination of migrants as its frame of reference. The suggested means of its mitigation is the use of sustainable wholesome food production and its fair distribution in ways that enable some potential and actual migrants earn a decent livelihood with a view to enhancing public nutrition and food security.

I think chapter two is open to the same set of objections with respect to our environment and population growth embodied in traditional notion of development. There is no justifiable reason support the view that development entails less and less labour intensive work to sustain development, for simple arithmetic is enough to show in that case, there should be a comparable decrease in population. Otherwise, it would inevitably result in massive unemployment or creation of paid non-jobs. Moreover, I plead for the deprived millions of migrants who live in abject misery around every large city in the world, their needs are not captured by macro-economic indicators, nor yet the micro ones.

I have some difficulties with chapter 3, which arise from the epistemological basis of its ‘theoretical part’. Starting with a terminological quibble, I am very wary of using the term ‘theory’ about an explanatory tool, or model if you will which attempts to capture various manifestations of a piece of intentional behaviour. I would use the term ‘theory’ only to describe a hypothesis intended to describe a gnomic phenomenon where intention plays absolutely no part.

When a person strongly believes (justifiably or otherwise) that some other location is more desirable than the present one, that belief motivates a person to migrate. This requires that belief to be strong enough to overcome the potential migrant’s emotional, legal or material ties to his/her present location.

In every instance of migration, its motivating belief exerts a push and a pull; while whether the push or pull dominates depend on one’s circumstances. Perhaps it would be better to describe the effect of that belief as simultaneously eliciting an evasive and gain-seeking response. For instance, ’brain drain’ represents an instance where the pull predominates while the push may be minimal, and flight from armed conflict may represent  an instance where desire to evade danger rather than material gain predominates. So, it will be reasonable to say that an instance of migration may occupy a place in the spectrum where at one end push or desire for undertaking evasive action predominates while possibility of making some greater material gain or increased social status dominates the other.

It is logically impossible to separate those two aspects of desirability of migration, but it is possible to see when one dominates the other. Generally speaking, desirability of changing one’s location is a combination of both. Please note that the believed desirability of migrating is a subjective value judgement that may be accepted by people, but actually believing it is up to the individual. Moreover, its justifiability is not guaranteed just by believing it.

So much for the generic description of migration. As you will see, it is easy to identify various members of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ sets, but it is practically impossible to identify their overlap that is applicable to an individual case.  But that is unimportant, because it is easy to identify the limited number of generic members of push and pull sets, which is the crucial thing in deciding on how to mitigate its ill effect, especially with reference to nutrition and food security.

I suggest that in chapter 4, we take our point of departure in the simple non-controversial fact, viz., the kind of migration we are talking about entails a reduction in the population density in a predominantly agricultural or a pastoral area or a fishing settlement.

Other things being equal, achieving any SDG depends on using the relevant and appropriate means required to do so for as long as it is desirable. Its success depends on how skilfully that means is used.

The possibility of achieving this objective depends on a certain number of people with the requisite capability remaining at a given location during the period achieving that goal remains desirable. Therefore, the probability of achieving our present goal will be adversely affected by the kind of migration in question.

At this point, I can almost hear the cry, “you’ve forgotten what technology and innovation can do to fill the ‘labour gap’ with better results/higher yields and at lower costs, etc”. Ergo; achieve greater development!

But let us not forget a few other forgotten facts. What percentage of the millions of migrants around every big city in the world today is capable of gainfully using the proposed technologies and innovations? Precisely which ones and where? The fact remains that a majority of them require fairly long-term training before they are able to use the proposed new methods. This of course assumes that after their training, there will be employment opportunities open to them. How to feed, clothe, shelter and train them, and who foots the bill?

Meanwhile, what about those who remain? What technology and innovation will enable them to appease their hunger, clean drinking water etc.? They lack sufficient know-how or resources, and those needs are continuous and immediate just like those of the migrants. I think nothing short of an in situ inspection of migrant settlements around the big cities can provide one with bits of the big picture in all its horrid colours (a random inspection and not one organised by units that earn by ‘slum tourism’ which began in South Africa and now doing very well elsewhere also.).

It will be already qualified outsiders with sufficient resources that will dominate the use of technology and innovations in areas affected by migration. Such tools are capital-intensive and labour saving. In other words, they exclude the majority of migrants and the remaining villagers who will be reduced to earn a pittance by unskilled labour jobs of limited duration. This has been the constant sad result of many and many a loudly acclaimed ‘boom’. I do not think anybody has undertaken a survey to ascertain the origin and present day situation of the human ‘left overs’ of any recent boom that is very easy to encounter in most urban slums.

Another contributor has very cogently pointed out those remittances from migrant workers makes only an insignificant contribution to sustainable rural improvement. As he points out, much of that money is spent on housing, automobiles, consumer electronics, etc., but hardly on agriculture. I know of some instances where it is used to run a small transport or a catering unit, but this is seldom. I think that it should be clearly understood that ‘family reunification’ is designed to permanently move a group of people out of a country and not to invest in it in any way.

As for impact of those remittances on local nutrition in areas subjected to protracted crises, the difficulty is that there is no one to one correspondence between having money and getting enough wholesome food. Here, there are so many variables and possible combinations among them to defy any tenable evaluation of such an impact. Among those variables are what percentage of food is locally produced and imported, distribution of production units in the country, location of main storage and distribution facilities, transport network, distribution and type of food outlets, type and distribution of the conflict, ease of currency conversion, etc. Under the circumstances, it would surely benefit the people greatly if we did our utmost to open reliable channels to distribute food and help to resolve the crisis rather than speculate on an impossible calculation.

As outlined earlier, we have already established the variable ‘push-pull’ combination that makes a person’s present location less desirable, which motivates one to migrate for a certain length of time. But ascertaining its composition becomes relevant only insofar as it helps us to counter its adverse impact on the possibility of achieving say the SDG’s. Assuming their intent is to enhance everybody’s quality of life (with reference to one’s cultural norms), those adverse effects would impinge on a person’s capability to adequately satisfy one’s nutrition, health, education and security in their inclusive sense, procreation and non-material (aesthetic enjoyment, sports and games, entertainment, etc) needs.

I think here we must decide on what need we ought to concentrate on, and nutrition appears to be the most appropriate.

I am not quite convinced of the importance of chapter 5 in its present form. I would suggest that that emphasis is put on nutrition while constantly recalling that the possibility of enabling the people to adequately meet their nutritional needs depends on their ability to satisfy their health, education and security needs. Naturally, well-coordinated work with those involved with them would be an indispensible adjunct to our success.

Finally, a more diplomatic (!) as well as a more pragmatic goal with which to round up the paper would be ‘the sustainable management of migration’. Perhaps, it would not be amiss to add to the goal, ‘with a view to enhancing nutrition and food security’.

As for the causal link between migration and sustainable food production, I think it would be easy to identify its operating mechanism as it were, if we work back from what we want to achieve rather than the other way around.  The reason for this is quite simple. If we try to do it the opposite way, we have no point of reference other than some nebulous notion of agriculture and food security. Once we start with those, we have something concrete to work on.

Every food production area (be it a village, district, province, etc) has an optimal qualitative and a quantitative output. Here, the term ‘quality’ represents type of food and not to quality used when referring to a single type. So, it could be a kind of cereal, vegetable, fruit, fish etc.

Now, the purpose of achieving this optimal output is ---

  1. Meeting some portion of producer’s (and family’s) own nutritional needs;
  2. Exchanging any surplus output for a fair amount of money to procure what is needed to meet the producer’s other fundamental needs like health, implements and tools needed to generate that output, etc.

Its achievement requires that each food producer possesses the requisite know-how and suitable tools as well as the skill to use them with sufficient skill. The capacity to acquire that know-how and skill varies greatly, while the need for nutrition is constant and continuous.

Hence, attempts to impart new know-how and skill to use new tools in order to enable a group of people to produce food have to be undertaken gradually with extreme care if they are to succeed to any significant degree.

The exchange involved in II above may involve local intermediaries like those who engage in food preservation and storage, cleaning and packing, carrying, selling and catering. It is crucial that these intermediaries do not unfairly profit at the expense of food producers and the end-users. Otherwise, it would inevitably lead to poverty among food producers and thus lowering of their productivity, and to malnutrition among the end-users due to unfairly high cost of wholesome food. This is the evil circle competitive food trade for profit creates and sustains. So, it is both rational and reasonable to move towards a humane and cooperative food production and trade.

When emphasis is thus put on nutrition, it will be clear that design and successful implementation of a policy to achieve that end will depend on its internal harmony as well as its harmony with other policies and implementational strategies in its policy ambience. Naturally, they all are subject to a considerable local variation.

All policies shall derive from the political decision taken at the global, regional or local level that every policy and its implementation shall contribute to enhancing the quality of life of each individual with reference to one’s chosen cultural framework without harming or causing deprivation to the others. This requires a comprehensive and an appropriate employment policy whose implementation will enable the people to earn in situ the necessary means sufficient to adequately satisfy their fundamental needs.

Its successful implementation with the emphasis on food production and fair use depends on the appropriateness of the policies and the skill with which they are implemented. Their appropriateness depends on how general or specific they are at the political level on which they are decided, and how suitable they are with respect to the needs they are intended to address, and what resources are available for their implementation.

For instance, at the global level, a helpful policy will limit itself to the provision of know-how and material resources concerned with meeting a fundamental need in a way appropriate to a region or a country. It will catalyse the evolution of the regional or national approaches, but will refrain from imposing those foreign to, or beyond their current training or ability to afford.

At regional level, policies will be less general and more specific, and leave the local level some strategic alternatives from which to select the mode of implementation best suited to the local conditions. For example, at regional level, the policy on food production might specify that the local authorities in somewhat arid areas may select from production of pulses, raising goats, etc., as always, the optimal is to arrive at those solutions by joint consultation with respect to the main goal.

Finally, local people could then identify the nuts and bolts of their choice and proceed with the last step in the chain of policy implementation. These embrace production, storage, processing as required, packing and a fair exchange of the surplus for cash. Rhetoric and jargon-free inter- and inter level consultation is essential to ensure the relevance and appropriateness of every policy. Such inter-level consultations across the design of different policies are essential to achieve an inter-policy harmony.

In addition to this summary of sound policy design and implementation, for more a detailed discussion of the issue as it pertains to nutrition and food security, please see:

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.