COVID-19 crisis: extending social protection to rural populations is key to recovery

FAO Director-General addresses the ILO Global Forum for a Human-Centred Recovery

© FAO/Olympia de Maismont

In Africa, more than 80 percent of population lack access to social protection benefits of any kind.

©FAO/Olympia de Maismont


Rome – The expansion of social protection for rural populations is a prerequisite for a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery from COVID-19 and must be at the core of the post-pandemic recovery policies, QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said Wednesday at the Global Forum for a Human-Centred Recovery hosted by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Due to a number of challenges faced by rural people such as remoteness, widespread informality, and low and irregular incomes linked to the seasonality of agrifood activities, rural populations do not have adequate access to social protection services, especially contributory ones, the Director-General said noting that rural people have been hit the hardest by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic leading to further widening of inequalities between those benefiting from health and social protection coverage, and those who lack access.

Qu was speaking at a session of the forum which also saw the participation of the President of Mozambique Filipe Nyusi and the Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, and was moderated by journalist-broadcaster Zeinab Badawi.

Gaps in social protection

For FAO, social protection is a set of interventions whose objective is to reduce social and economic risk and vulnerability, and to alleviate extreme poverty and deprivation. This can include social assistance, such as publicly provided cash or in-kind transfers, and labour market protection, such as unemployment benefits, the building of skills and the training of workers.

Qu underscored the need to tailor social protection policies to the specific needs of individual countries, especially in Africa, where more than 80 percent of population lack access to social protection benefits of any kind.

Despite the recent expansion of social protection related-assistance globally, only 1 in 10 households in sub-Saharan Africa and less than 1 in 5 households in South Asia were reached by any type of COVID-specific social protection measures, the Director-General added.

More than 80 percent of the world’s rural self-employed are informal, and the agrifood sector has the highest level of informal employment. Furthermore, people living in rural areas are twice as likely to be in informal employment as those in urban areas.

Qu echoed the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ recent call for accelerating progress in creating decent jobs and expanding social protection to close the gaps while contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To promote decent jobs in rural areas, the Director-General highlighted the need for a holistic approach outlining three major areas: focusing on rural development based on the specific characteristics and competitive advantages of individual developing countries,  including investment in food processing as one of the most efficient approaches to offer opportunities, in particular, for youth and women; putting in place enabling policies for small – and medium-sized businesses; and vocational training so farmers can obtain certain levels of skills.

Strong social protection systems, strong livelihoods

Strong social protection systems will pave the way to more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable agrifood systems, which are central to the livelihoods of 4.5 billion people, including over 1.1 billion people in poverty who live and work in rural areas, the Director-General said.

Qu reiterated FAO’s support to Members in adapting their social protection policies to include measures tailored to the needs of people whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

The examples of such support include enabling pastoralist households to collect payments along transhumance routes, facilitating their access to e-payments or recognizing the seasonality of the livelihoods of fishers by increasing the value of social transfer payments during the off-season. More broadly, it implies making social protection systems more responsive to shocks that agrifood livelihoods are exposed to, such as droughts, pest outbreaks and floods.

Mobilising finance

Progressively expanding social protection will require financing, the Director-General stressed. Without investment, innovation, technology and especially digitalization of agrifood systems, we cannot achieve more inclusive development, he said, noting that building strong social protection systems will also require efficient, effective and coherent partnerships and global solidarity.

FAO and social protection

FAO recognizes social protection as a universal right. The Organization is an active member of the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection and has been working closely with the ILO, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank and others in the establishment of a Consortium on Social Protection.

Last year, FAO and the ILO launched the joint report on Extending Social Protection to Rural Populations, which outlines a common inter-agency approach to expanding provision in rural areas.

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FAO and social protection



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