In the past 20 months, we have seen the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities and the policies and programmes undertaken by our governments to respond to this pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the number of job and production losses and rates of hunger, malnutrition, violence, and poverty were already alarming. The pandemic has only doubled, even tripled these figures. Unfortunately, rural communities were unprepared for these impacts and are likely to endure them longer. Let me discuss some of the now-established impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, AsiaDHRRA documented that rural communities in our region continued to face food and livelihood insecurity, brought about by worsening climate risks, economic shocks, and land and water grabbing threats. Before this pandemic, rural areas were at a disadvantage with inadequate infrastructure and social services such as health and sanitation facilities, transportation and communications systems, access to social protection, scarce formal employment and livelihoods, and high risk to climate change and natural disasters, among others. The pandemic further aggravated these challenges due to interruption of remittances; mobility restrictions affecting production, transportation, and marketing of produce; and suspension or cessation of livelihood and labour opportunities, among many other things, according to UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) (2020)
The State of Food and Agriculture in Asia and the Pacific 2020 of the FAO stated that the region experienced a substantial decline in poverty and rapid economic growth in recent years. In South and Southeast Asia sub-regions, this decline in poverty was attributed to increased rural outmigration and rise in the proportion of non-poor in rural areas. The report emphasised the need to further improve rural farms and rural non-farm economies for these positive trends to continue.
Unfortunately, the onslaught of the pandemic reversed these trends. In 2020, stringent movement restrictions derailed the processing, marketing, and transportation of agricultural products, severely affecting rural workers and producers, particularly the casual, informal, and self-employed. Reports showed that informal rural and agricultural workers, especially women workers, suffered the most loss of income since they had no access to insurance and other forms of social protection. We also saw a rise in unemployment and underemployment rates since last year.
This pandemic also reversed the rural-to-urban population movement. Last year, we witnessed a large-scale urban-to-rural or reverse migration due to, among others, loss of employment and livelihood opportunities in urban areas, strict mobility restrictions, and fear of rapid virus transmission due to spatial congestion. Cliffe, Zamore, and Noel (2020) noted that this phenomenon is not new and had been observed in past epidemic and pandemic outbreaks, such as the cholera outbreak in 1832, the Spanish Flu in 1918, and the recent Ebola virus outbreak in the mid-2010s. This urban-to-rural migration is overloading the capacities of rural areas, resources, and services and is exacerbating COVID-19 risks.
Another issue magnified by the pandemic is the structural barriers confronting rural women and youth. Stay at home orders took a toll on rural women and girls in charge of managing their households and,at the same time, processing and marketing their produce. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and UN Environment Programme (2020) said that the rate of women’s unpaid care and domestic work has almost doubled. Cases of gender-based violence also increased. Due to the socio-legal status of rural women, their access to social protection and services has long been wanting. During this pandemic, their access to social protection and amelioration programmes, such as cash transfers, further weakened. In the case of rural youth and children, their access to formal education and employment and in-formal ones have also been disrupted, further undermining their future income, according to a study by Abiad, Gayares, and Thomas (2021).AsiaDHRRA also noted that school closures increased the incidences of child labour, especially in the agriculture sector.
The shift in the public and private sectors to digital platforms for rendering services and programmes also left out rural communities that lack or have weak digital connectivity. This resulted in a further decrease in enrollment of rural children and youth; and disinformation or misinformation among rural women providing care to their households.
Indeed, this pandemic and its impact are unprecedented. Rural communities are not the only ones hit, but they will disproportionately bear the pandemic’s socio-economic and socio-ecological aftereffects.
Partnerships for Response and Recovery
While the challenges are daunting, we have also seen many rural communities quickly adjust and adapt even at the early onset of the pandemic. Many rural peoples’ organizations (RPOs) quickly pivoted and responded to the call of the times, especially in providing food and supplies to neighbouring urban centres despite inadequate transportation and logistics.
The pandemic badly hit many smallholders, but it did not deter them from proving that they are indeed capable development actors. Our partner farmers’ organisations in Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have focused on invigorating their participation in local agricultural value chains. They shifted to producing crops and commodities with high local or domestic demands; they produced needed supplies for governments’ assistance programmes, food banks and feeding programmes, and isolation facilities. They have also intensified the promotion, use, and exchange of traditional seed varieties and natural and diversified farming practices, upholding balance in social, economic, and ecological community growth and development. We take note of the value of the territorial approach in development planning and disaster response, and management. This reality also compels us to amplify our efforts to raise awareness and promote the localisation of the ASEAN Guidelines on Responsible Agriculture Investments (AGRAI). AGRAI is an important policy instrument for ensuring that smallholders, rural women, and rural youth are recognised, engaged, respected, and protected in agri-value chain developments.
Likewise, we again see the benefit of investing in organising rural communities. Through these RPOs, individual households could access information on the coronavirus, information on safety measures and protocols, food packs and hygiene kits, emergency assistance (for production and non-production), inputs and wage subsidies, and other public programmes.
We also quickly responded to some immediate needs on the ground within the network, even with our limited resources. It has been possible with the support of our donor partners, such as the European Union, International Fund for Agriculture Development, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, that allowed us to reorient our on-ground cooperation in line with the needs and realities of our members and partners. Some of our member-DHRRAs have recalibrated their initiatives to provide psychosocial and legal services to their partner communities, capacity building on alternative livelihood, and capital resources for such activities, among others. Our forthcoming cooperation with farmers’ organisations will allow them to recalibrate their business plans, revive previous and improved current productions, and strengthen their capacities as players in their respective local agri-value chains and as development actors in their localities.
These responses—local value chain development (SDGs 1, 2, and 10), responsible natural resource-based food production (SDGs 12, 13, 14, and 15), and responsive partnerships and investments (SDG-17)—are but some of the critical factors that must be carried over and enlarge as we shift to the recovery phase. We believe these aid in rural communities’ transformative resilience (bounce forward) more than their usual persistence (bounce back).
Onward to Recovery
From our experiences in post-Tropical Storm Haiyan programmes, we have learned that the recovery and rebuilding of rural communities differ greatly from that of the cities and urban areas. In rural areas, reinvigorating the local economies to boost recovery necessitates the integration of farm-based and non-farm alternatives. Likewise, we cannot overemphasise the importance of social solidarity in rural areas. Our previous experiences have shown that investing in organisational development, including organising, capacity building, leadership programmes, in all phases of recovery and rebuilding has proven to help strengthen communities’ resiliencies to future disasters or crises.
Like other crises we have dealt with in the past, we try to find opportunities in this pandemic. That is the opportunity to shift the paradigm towards holistic, multi-scalar, multi-sectoral rural development and transformation approach. As such, our 2021-2025 Strategic Action Plan underscores the territorial development approach, which is “anchored on sustainable development that recognizes endogenous capacities, employs localized approaches in pursuing growth and competitiveness, and respects participation and representation of various stakeholders, especially local peoples.” It has long been part of our strategies, but we intend to institutionalise it as our central approach this time. In the next five years, our network will E-LE-VATE (Empower-Lead-Innovate) our work, responsive to the post-pandemic development and growth of RPOs. We will enable them to engage in territorial-based governance mechanisms upholding climate-smart and agroecological practices while navigating towards digital agriculture; and support our member-DHRRAs and partner-RPOs in engaging with the public sector and the public sector with the private sector, recognising that both are equally important partners in territorial-based rural transformation. We likewise recognise the importance of building stronger relations with local authorities. Thus, embedded in our central strategy of territorial approach is our renewed commitment to engage them and help build their capacities towards the collaborative creation of spaces and mechanisms for working together to develop the local community.
We are also happy to note that the ASEAN Rural Development and Poverty Reduction Framework Action Plan (RDPE FAP) 2021-2025 upholds the same territorial-based RDPE approach. We are also humbled that the ASEAN, through the SOMRDPE, has entrusted us to collaborate in developing the ASEAN Rural Development Master Plan. This proposed master plan would set common strategic directions for the community pillars yet would have differentiated priorities and actions at the ASEAN Member States level. The initiative came from recognising that policies and programmes remain fragmented at the regional and national levels in ASEAN. This requires reconfiguring and rethinking development initiatives: cohesive regional policies and programs that consider context and locale-specific implementation. In this master plan, the territorial development approach is once again seen as central to post-pandemic recovery, especially strengthening community resilience and accelerating SDG localisation.
AsiaDHRRA is committed to continuing. working with ASEAN, especially in bringing in rural peoples’ participation, ensuring that their voices are heard; their realities are recognised; their rights and welfare are protected, and their needs are responsibly responded to.