Credit: Katie Gallus
Last week, I was privileged to participate at a G20 preparatory event in Berlin exploring the best strategies to ensure a flourishing future for young people in rural areas around the world. I served as a member of the advisory committee for the development of the Berlin Charter, which outlines the kinds of investments and priorities that will achieve this goal. In a world that is rapidly urbanizing, there is significant and appropriate attention on how to make cities safe, economically viable, inclusive, and sustainable, including here at the Council. But with all the attention paid to urbanization, we cannot forget to rethink what rural life in the modern era looks like, too. At this event, the German government asserted that flourishing rural areas are not only essential for the cities we hope for in the future—they are essential to global security and economic well-being.
One reason that they can confidently assert this is related to a demographic shift. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ most recent global food security report, Stability in the 21st Century, draws particular attention to these changing demographics, and how food security and well-being in low-income regions are connected to the well-being and security of regions around the world. Indeed, the findings and policy ideas presented are relevant not only for an audience in the United States, where I currently write from, but for policy audiences and stakeholders worldwide. Therefore, the Council is pleased to share a new global companion to the report, to contribute to this important global dialogue on how we can collectively create a stable, well-nourished world, regardless of hemisphere or whether your address is rural or urban.
As the report notes, however, regions will be affected differently. The largest population growth is projected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa over the coming decades. Africa, unlike other continents, is still largely rural and for many reasons the primary economic engine for growth in those economies is agriculture, food and broader rural development. Still, unemployment is high—60 percent of Africa’s unemployed are young people—and the nature of work is changing. One study supported by the MasterCard Foundation noted that within their sample of young people in Ghana and Uganda, most had multiple income streams and types of work, rather than a single job in the formal economy. If economic opportunity does not emerge in rural areas, the logical choice for many youth will be to move elsewhere in search of opportunity—whether that means to cities within their country or across an international border.
Not only does this present a scenario the world is not yet prepared for, it leaves open the possibility of languishing, empty, unproductive rural areas—which leads to higher food prices, including for city dwellers. High food prices depress manufacturing and industry because wages must be higher to support workers basic needs. Food price volatility can lead to civil unrest, often originating in cities as a response by the working class. And, as mentioned above, sustained food insecurity can catalyze large-scale migration, principally among burgeoning youth populations, into cities; cities with underdeveloped infrastructure to support them. In short, flourishing cities require flourishing rural areas.
Credit: Lisa Heinrich
Stability in the 21st Century asserts that there is an important role for national governments, in high- and low-income countries alike, in addressing challenges related to global agricultural development and food security. Throughout the development of the Berlin Charter, the German government did an excellent job of acknowledging the demographic shifts that will test the global food system, and more importantly, involving the voices of the growing youth population. More than 130 young delegates representing each of the G20 countries and many African nations participated for roughly a week, learning from Germany’s policies around rural-urban connectivity and offering feedback to the political leadership attending from around the world. They explained what they require to be a driving force for economic and political development. Their messages were clear: they are not waiting for programs that could provide support—where they see money and opportunity they will pursue it, and these opportunities are often in agriculture and food. However, to fully maximize their potential, access to capital, professional networks, mentorship and connectivity to urban centers, customers, and cutting edge information are essential.
Seeing these young people define themselves, their peers, and their generation in person was inspiring; seeing them participate in the consultative processes of the G20, including in the formation of the Berlin Charter, was inspired. The vision will be better informed for it. I applaud the German government’s willingness to give voice and search for the innovators leading the way.