Rome, 3 April 2017 – Ensuring young people in rural areas can access financing and earn decent incomes is essential to stem migration to Europe and elsewhere, said Gilbert F. Houngbo, who began his term as the sixth President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) today.
IFAD is a specialized United Nations agency and international financial institution, which invests in eradicating rural poverty and hunger in developing countries. Houngbo – who has extensive experience in political affairs, international development and financial management, including a term as Prime Minister of Togo – takes up the helm at a crucial time. Changing government priorities and numerous global emergencies, such as the 20 million people currently facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, threaten to divert funding away from long-term development.
The risk, according to Houngbo, is that without adequate investment in the world’s most vulnerable communities, there will be increased instability and conflict and people will find it harder to bounce back from shocks, giving them more reasons to flee rural areas.
“I don’t want people to see life in rural areas only as a hardship and that you live there by necessity,” he said. “We need to work on those hardships so that young people can be happy in a rural setting, instead of looking to go to the capital or move outside their country.”
Houngbo himself was born and raised on a small family farm in rural Togo. He says that his parents’ focus on earning an income through growing and selling crops, even in difficult times, enabled him to receive an education and move out of poverty.
“My understanding of the economic side of food production goes back to when I was in primary school,” he said. “Food security and nutrition are essential, but we have to go beyond that and really aim at the fight against poverty and look at agriculture as a decent income-generating activity.”
Houngbo’s own experiences make him critically aware of the challenges rural families face and how the lack of infrastructure and opportunities can drive young people to leave their homes to seek a better life.
“It is totally unacceptable that when I was a youngster of eight years old, I had to walk four kilometres every morning to go and get water for the house, and a few years later I had to walk 20 kilometres every day to get to high school,” he said. “And it is unacceptable that kids today have to go through the same thing 40 to 50 years later. So I cannot rest when I see those situations.”
Houngbo says his priority is to ensure that IFAD continues to have the resources to invest in rural areas so that they become places of prosperity and hope, where people can build decent lives and not be compelled to migrate.
“My goal is to make sure that, at the end of my term, IFAD’s impact on poverty alleviation through agriculture and nutrition has decisively increased,” he said. “The fact that IFAD is small and agile is a strength. We need to maximise how to use that strength so we can really deliver on the ground. We need to make our case to our major resource providers that we can do more – not by saying it, but by doing it.”
Prior to his appointment as IFAD President, Houngbo was the Deputy Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) where he led field operations in more than 100 countries and managed its bilateral and multilateral partnerships. He also held a number of leadership positions at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) including Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary-General – Africa Regional Director, where he led poverty alleviation programmes in 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.