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Rural development and food and nutrition security

Rural development is closely interlinked with population dynamics in developing countries. Urbanisation and population growth pose major challenges by changing the age structure in rural areas, making food shortages more pronounced and exacerbating already inadequate productivity. The result is poverty-driven migration to cities, which can in turn have a negative impact on rural development.

Rural-urban migration shapes rural development

Migration from rural to urban areas is the main demographic trend in the domain of rural development. Young people move to cities, hoping for better access to education, employment opportunities and services such as healthcare – and affected by an often difficult existence in rural areas suffering from inadequate agricultural productivity and a lack of alternative economic sectors.

The rural exodus of people of reproductive age can lead to a reduction in the absolute number of births in rural areas. In the medium term, these migration patterns can also affect the national birth rate, since people in urban areas tend to have significantly fewer children than in rural areas.

Rural-urban migration also changes the age structure in rural areas – and in many countries the sex structure as well. Since it is mainly young men who leave for the cities, those left behind are above all old people, children – and young women. As they replace the young men as agricultural workers, these young women have less opportunity to attend school. At the same time, there may be less incentive for the remaining population to become productive in agriculture if their family members who left for the city send them money or supplies.

Insufficient agricultural productivity results in food and nutrition insecurity

The problems in the agricultural sector including the rural exodus pose the challenge of how to feed the world’s growing population. In many developing countries, seed, irrigation systems and agricultural tools are lacking, infrastructure is inadequate and climate change is having a negative impact.

Food insecurity can be a root cause of migration and displacement. Insufficient quantity and quality of food also have a direct impact on life expectancy and mortality. In 2016 worldwide 815 million people were chronically malnourished (FAO, 2018). Of these, some 155 million were young children affected by stunting (too short for their age), while 52 million were endangered by acute undernourishment. Food and nutrition security is particularly crucial for pregnant women and their babies up to the age of two. An insufficient supply of essential micronutrients is one of the key causes of high mortality, especially among children under five.

To keep up with world population growth, global food production must rise markedly

By 2050, the world’s agricultural food production must increase by 70% to feed the world’s population (World Resources Institute, 2018). Meeting this demand will be a major challenge, due to the loss of agricultural land through the expansion of urban agglomerations, conflicts over land use, and the uneconomic fragmentation of inherited land.

Efficient and sustainable agriculture requires young, well-trained workers. Rural areas, and particularly the agricultural sector, must therefore once again become more attractive for the young generation.

Integrated urban-rural planning strategies support sustainable rural development

Demographic and agricultural data are required to analyse population profiles and migration flows in rural areas, for example to relate crop yields to a population that rapidly grows in some places while it decreases in others. Strengthening municipal structures and civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) in rural areas will provide better population data for planning rural infrastructure in function of need and for clarifying land tenure issues.

In addition, reliable data and strengthened local administrative structures can provide a basis for joint regional development strategies for both rural and urban areas, allowing them to play complementary roles and countering a potential urban-rural divide.

For more information on the interlinkages of rural development and food and nutrition security with population dynamics, please refer to Chapter 4.7 of the handbook.

How can rural development factor in population dynamics?

To address these challenges and opportunities, stakeholders can:

  • Increase agricultural productivity in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner by: 
    • maintaining productive workers in rural areas 
    • investing in technical solutions to increase productivity 
    • establishing a sustainable resource management system 
    • addressing the impacts of climate change. 
  • Help fulfil the population’s nutritional needs, e.g. by: 
    • diversifying agricultural production 
    • designing nutrition-sensitive value chains and nutrition systems. 
  • Promote awareness of the importance of a balanced diet, particularly for children and pregnant women.
  • Enhance the attractiveness of rural areas to prevent emigration – particularly of young people – for instance by: 
    • expanding service and supply infrastructure (e.g. schools, health centres, electricity, water, mobile phone network and internet) 
    • providing social protection mechanisms, e.g. in the case of crop failure or illness 
    • fostering integrated development between small and medium-sized cities and their surrounding rural areas 
    • expanding employment options in rural areas, both within and outside of agriculture. 
  • Increase the involvement of older people in rural development programmes, e.g. through: 
    • social protection mechanisms 
    • improved access to productive resources, particularly for women. 
  • Improve data collection in rural areas to enable data-based planning and strengthen municipal structures as decision-makers.


  • FAO and UNFPA provide support for population and agricultural censuses. The organisations recommend coordinating both censuses and effectively integrating agricultural data into population censuses.
© GIZ/Jörg Böthling
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