What Does Covid-19 Crisis Mean for Rural Development?

David Lewis is professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics & Political Science

By David Lewis
LONDON, Apr 22 2020 – The implications and consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are playing out before us. Much of the news coverage of the to date in both the Global North and the Global South has understandably focused on the horrifying impact of the disease on urban communities, where it is clearly hitting people, and economies, hardest.

David Lewis

But what are the implications for people in rural areas, where just under a half of the world’s population live, and where the largest concentrations of the poorest and most food insecure people are still to be found?What conclusions should we be drawing, and how will we be thinking about research and policy in the future?

We should not be in any doubt that rural livelihoods are being and will continue to be severely affected. The chief executive of US NGO Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is today reported as saying ‘Lockdowns are hampering people from planting and selling crops, working as day labourer and selling products, among other problems. That means less income for desperately hungry people to buy food and less food available, at higher prices.’

The immediate response challenge is to provide humanitarian support to those people most at risk, drawing on and adapting existing social protection systems as much as possible. This needs to be a cooperative effort in which governments, non-governmental organisations, inter-governmental agencies and business work together with local communities to ensure an effective, rapid response. Educating people about how the disease spreads is also key. These effortswill need to be locally owned as far as possible. BRAC’s approach in Bangladesh is one impressive model that can be adapted elsewhere.

Following from this, we also need to start thinking as soon as possible about creating more resilient forms of social protection in rural areas by ‘building back better’. These improvements will need to be based on localism and build upon – and strengthen – the decentralised structures that exist in many countries but which remain underdeveloped.

The coronavirus may have been indiscriminate in the way it has infected people from prime ministers to farm labourers, but in reality it has highlighted problems of social inequality, with the poorest people disproportionately affected as a result of weaker health, higher risk exposure and exclusion from services.

The Covid-19 crisis also raises a whole series of higher order challenges around environment, food systems and climate change that must now be addressed. The issue of ‘food sovereignty’ highlighted by movements such as Via Campesina will need to be placed front and centre in the reassessment of how we can create more sustainable and equitablefarming systems.

The production and consumption pressures created by human beings on the natural environment – in the form of deforestation, habitat loss, declining biodiversity, the carbon emissions contributing to climate change – are now there for all to see.

The new priority is to address these environmental pressures more urgentlysince they contribute opportunities for ‘spillover events’ – the spread of zoonotic diseases like coronavirus which cross natural barriers from animals to humans.

Epidemiological studies point to the role of human encroachment into wildlife habitats, hunting and wild animal trades as factors that increase the risk of this, while others also draw attention to the risks contributed by increased levels of factory farming.

One thing that’s certain is the need for multidisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing these risks, such as anthropologists, epidemiologistsan veterinary scientists. One example is Høg et al.’s (2019) researchon understanding perceptions of risk in Bangladesh’s poultry value chains, which points to contradictions in how people think about and manage risk that has important implications for all of us.

The crisis offers an important opportunity to rethink and restructure policy, practice and research if we can take it.


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Q&A: Continued Social Distancing and Hundreds of Millions More in Poverty – A New Normal for the World?

Child refugees from Central African Republic in Cameroon’s eastern border town of Garoua-Boula share a plate of rice in an early morning in this dated photo. Experts say that as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19 the number of people facing food insecurity could at the least double. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 22 2020 – With much of the global economy stalled amid an unprecedented lockdown of nations grappling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the author of a new United Nations report on the disease’s impact on poverty told IPS that hundreds of millions more could be pushed into poverty and we can expect to see social unrest.

“A lockdown without access to food is going to be very tough on people, and one can expect social unrest arising out of it,” Andy Sumner, a professor of International Development at King’s College London, told IPS.

Sumner, along with Eduardo Ortiz-Juarez of King’s College London and Chris Hoy of Australian National University, is co-author of a report published in the U.N. University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) earlier this month, which estimates COVID-19’s impact on poverty could push anywhere between 85 million people (at the very least) to 580 million globally into poverty.

Sumner told IPS that the resultant global lockdowns were impacting the economies of developing nations in a big way.

“For developing countries, this is the primary economic shock channel. Given the age structure of developing countries it could be the economic channel is more significant than the health channel. It’s difficult to say at the moment,” Sumner told IPS.

These views were echoed by the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) yesterday, Apr. 21, as it called for swift action to alleviate the impacts of the lockdown. WFP’s Senior Economist, Arif Husain said in a statement, “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge. We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe.”

Meanwhile, the  report further claims “the greatest impact will be in sub-Saharan Africa  where up to half of the new poor will live”. Sumner said that’s because any country that has a lot of people living just above the poverty line remains vulnerable to a poverty spike from an economic slowdown.

Excerpts of the interview follow. Some of the answers have been paraphrased for clarity purposes. 

Inter Press Service (IPS): Your report states that the number of people living in poverty in the world could increase by between 85–135 million in the event of a 5 percent contraction, between 420–580 million people under a per capita income or consumption contraction of 20 percent. Does this mean that COVID-19’s impact on poverty is a range?

Andy Sumner (AS): Yes, potentially. However, it depends on a set of factors.

First, we have a set of consumption contractions applied to all countries. We do not know which of our three scenarios is closest to the final version, and consumption changes may differ across countries. Furthermore, we are assuming that such contractions are distribution-neutral.

Secondly, we should not forget that there are other transmission channels from the pandemic to poverty beyond changes in consumption.

Thirdly, there are other types of poverty that we are not measuring, such as deprivations in health itself that cannot be captured in consumption losses.

Finally, many governments in developing countries have already introduced or adapted social protection and jobs programmes. Thus, to some extent the full impacts might be mitigated, we hope.

IPS: You mentioned in the report that this could have a negative effect on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030 – can you elaborate why/how this will be?

AS: The SDGs aim to end global poverty in all its forms and leave no one behind. If COVID-19 adds 500 million more people in poverty, that’ll mean the SDGs are under threat even more than before COVID.

IPS: What steps can countries and local leaders take to avoid this consequence of further poverty?

AS: In the immediate term, there is an overwhelming need for the full range of safety nets and social protection to be initiated, expanded, and multiplied in all developing countries as soon as possible.

This looks like it is happening already to some extent and many countries already have programmes that just need expanding and better funding.

In the longer term, questions might emerge about how to provide basic healthcare for all as part of the SDG package and how that is to be financed. That debate seems to have dropped off the radar before COVID. Maybe COVID-19 will bring it back in from the cold.

IPS: What do you believe still remains unanswered about the situation?

AS: One important question is: will there ever be a vaccine especially so if there is no guarantee of immunity from COVID-19 even with infection. Then we need to ask, will everyone have access to the vaccine and will it be 100 percent effective. Or will we end up living in a new apartheid of COVID-19 between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated living in separate areas and working in different labour markets?

This also looks like a long crisis — with multiple waves. A best case scenario and vaccine in two years time would take five to 10 years to vaccinate everyone in the world possibly. So it looks like living with COVID-19 restrictions might be our new normal.