To get out of poverty, get out of agriculture?

Out of all the World Food Day blogs I’ve read, Owen Barder‘s was the most refreshing, thought-provoking, and as always, entertaining. But I do question his argument on two pretty fundamental points.

Expanding on Owen’s stats-speak

…it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture…

I suggest it important to consider the possible omitted variables involved here. Sure, most people who are poor sustain their livelihood through some form of agriculture, but it does not follow that agriculture is the cause of poverty.

One big, fat omitted variable is the glaringly obvious rural context. The distinction between agriculture and rural living is important here because it forces us to think about what it means to live in a rural location other than working in agriculture: restricted mobility due to rougher roads hampering transportation of goods, access to services, opportunities to meet and collaborate, less competition in local markets, limited communication and information availability leading to slow learning of new skills, easy exploitation by the better informed…

These are some the biggest challenges that poor, rural people face, not that they work in agriculture per se. When some of these difficulties that act as bottlenecks to rural development are addressed, then agriculture remains an arduous life, but one that might be occasionally remitting and rewarding.

Of course that’s not to say that heading to the towns and cities isn’t perhaps a quicker way of escaping the isolation of rural life and drudgery of agriculture. Here’s my second point though, we must not forget the reality that many poor people face when they reach urban areas: a higher paying, more secure manufacturing job is the dream that most town-bound migrants fail to find. Many end up in slums, working even more informally for little more that buys a lot less, and certainly living even greater unremitting and unrewarding hardship.

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2 Responses to “To get out of poverty, get out of agriculture?”

  1. Mario Says:

    Interesting post Alexis. I totally agree that life, unfortunately, is more complicated than that. Another point that I would add to yours is that a lot of people forget the aggregated effect of their proposals. What if ALL the people that now work in agriculture, move in other sectors. Oversupply of labor in manufacturing, under production in agriculture and still not addressing one of the major problems of poverty which is low productivity of labor. In fact I believe that AFTER increasing productivity in the agriculture sector, the lives of those in the sector will be more fulfilling and then some more educated people will move out of the sector with higher chances of not joining the armies in the slums.
    M

  2. almorcrette Says:

    Thanks Mario for your reply! It’s a form of the fallacy of composition to believe that since it works for some to move to the cities to get out of poverty, that this means it’s a good idea for all to do it.

    I’m sure Owen isn’t suggesting that all rural folk move to the cities… oh wait, actually that is what it sounds like he’s saying: he IS suggesting that the development narrative that prescribes attention to improving agricultural productivity is wrong-headed and he IS suggesting we shift focus towards enabling exit from agriculture.

    And given that he says that “three quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods”, we can assume that he is not being that careful about distinguishing between rural life and work in agriculture.

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