How putting the vulnerable first ultimately benefits all

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

Almost one year after the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), delegates are coming together this week in New York for the first High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The theme of the forum is “ensuring no one is left behind” and provides an opportunity for UN States Members and agencies to reflect on progress thus far on the SDGs, to identify cross-cutting issues, and address new or emerging challenges to achieving the goals.

A previous A4I blog series (part 1/part 2) looked at how agriculture is related to every one of the 17 goals. In the spirit of “ensuring no one is left behind” we’re now looking at how engaging marginalised and vulnerable groups can both contribute to achieving the SDGs and benefit these groups, particularly in the context of the agricultural sector.


2015-03-02 14.39.18SDG 5 demands gender equality, calling for “equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources.” These rights are particularly important for women who live in rural, agricultural areas. It is well documented that rural women are amongst the most likely to face barriers in accessing resources, such as quality seeds, fertilisers and credit, or gaining land rights. As a result of gender-related barriers, female farmers in Africa produce up to 25% less than men do. Yet, if these women could gain the same access to productive resources as their male counterparts, their yields would increase by 20–30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5–4% annually. This alone would lift a total of 100 – 150 million people out of hunger.

As Melinda Gates says, “When you invest in a woman, you invest in everyone.” This rings true for ensuring rural women are not left behind by development efforts. For example, if a female farmer has secure land and can access inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, and water, she can grow more than she needs just to feed herself and her family. This takes her beyond subsistence farming to produce a yield surplus that she can sell at local markets, thus generating an additional income. So far, so also-true-for-a-man. However, when this is a reality for a woman the effect is magnified, because a woman typically reinvests up to 90% of her income back into her family or community, compared to just 30-40% that a man typically reinvests.

Rural people

Photo A'Melody Lee  World Bank

Credit: A’Melody Lee, World Bank

SDG 10 aims to reduce inequalities between and within countries. With more than 70% of those in extreme poverty located in rural areas, the inequalities between urban and rural populations will need to be addressed if inequality within countries is to be achieved. Agricultural development can play a large part in achieving this because building a thriving agricultural sector has been demonstrated to be an effective means to accelerate inequality and reduce rural poverty.

Furthermore, urban areas are typically home to a growing middle class that increasingly demands a more nutritious and varied diet. This can present a significant opportunity for rural communities to meet this ever-growing demand. ‘Farm to fork’ will cease to be a simple process serving just local populations, but will require value chains to lengthen geographically and become more far-reaching and complex, with ever more actors involved.

These new, longer value chains will require the resilient infrastructure called for by SDG 9. This does not only mean better physical infrastructure so that rural people can reliably move produce to buyers and markets, but also digital infrastructure and access to financial services. Credit can help entrepreneurs start businesses, diversify incomes, and build livelihoods that are both prosperous and resilient – for some excellent examples, take a look at the experiences gained in Rwanda, here and here.

Young people

Young farmers

Young farmers in Mozambique

Young people can be particularly vulnerable to exclusion from jobs that represent decent work, as called for by SDG 8. For example, in Africa 60% of unemployed people are between the ages of 15 and 24. Although young people can sometimes perceive agriculture as outdated, unprofitable and hard work, in reality it can be a dynamic sector that is full of opportunities for them. While it is important to engage young people in the sector, the question of how to do so leaves many scratching their heads, but initiatives such as those that use role models or demonstrate that the sector has scope to modernise may hold some promise. However, as directed by SDG 4, it is essential that young rural people are not left behind educationally and that they have the skills and training to make a success of a livelihood based on agriculture. Let us hope that the rural young in developing countries are not forgotten when the UN celebrates World Youth Skills Day On 15th July.

For the very young, the call by SDG 2 to end malnutrition is particularly important. Nutrition of a mother and her baby in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to the age of two, has a profound and lasting impact on a child’s ability to grow, learn and develop. A stunted child is more likely to fall behind in school, and fail to achieve a decent income in adulthood thus potentially perpetuating the cycle of poverty for the next generation. For example, it is estimated that stunted children earn 20% less as adults compared to non-stunted individuals. Success in SDG 2 will have a long-term impact in the future, because the cumulative effect of widespread good nutrition in a group of people can directly impact, and accelerate, a society’s ability to develop and prosper.

“Ensuring no one is left behind”

Of course, the SDGs aim to be universal and to benefit everyone around the world. However, as international leaders gather to reflect on the first year of the 17 global goals, it is not enough to assume that progress for some is progress for all. Let us hope that they remember to reflect on the fact that, if the goals are to be achieved, it will be essential that we hold marginalised groups at the forefront of the collective consciousness. Putting the most vulnerable first will ultimately benefit everyone.

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