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Rural Sustainable Development After Covid-19; An Opinion, Not a Myth

After coronavirus, nothing less than a revolution in rural sustainable development can prevent another crisis.

Like our ancestors, we must learn to heed the call of the land, the rhythm of the seasons, the social bonds that hold us together. We must value the farmers, healers and teachers. This virus has shaken the very foundations of our societies. How we build on those foundations, though, is up to all of us.

Aid is forthcoming from the community of nations – the World Bank has already made $160 billion available to the developing world, the IMF is encouraging developing nations to forgo debt-service payments and instead direct resources to fighting the virus. More will be needed, but we must also ensure it is deployed wisely. Aid must serve to develop sustainable rural economies, rather than encouraging further urban sprawl and overcrowding.

In the developing world, progress has long been tied to the success of a handful a mega-cities, powering economic growth and acting as magnets for a formerly largely rural population. The virus has shown that many of these cities are unhygienic, often unliveable.

Many of the slums and shanty towns of the world, like Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, which has already seen hundreds of cases of Covid-19, are so densely populated that even staying at home does not achieve the aims of social distancing. A model that relies on mega-cities powered by cheap labour from the slums may survive the virus, but it must not survive the effort to rebuild our economies after the pandemic.

Developed economies may be considering the impact of reduced international travel or greater remote working on GDP. In developing countries, by contrast, both the virus and the measures governments have rightly taken to contain it threaten families’ ability to feed themselves.

To build sustainable, resilient and harmonious societies, we must begin with the food on our tables – where it comes from, how it reaches us, and what it means to us. No one should live with the fear that they or their family should go hungry. No one should fear that the food and drink they live on could put their health in danger. Our gardens of flowers could also accommodate fruits and vegetables.

The focus in the developing world will soon shift from the immediate public health response to the virus, to how best to support jobs and the economy, and to build a sustainable recovery. Economists warn that the collapse in commodity prices, tourism and remittances is already having devastating consequences, even before the disease begins to spread and weak health systems struggle to cope.

In developing countries, the virus poses a genuine threat to food security through disruption of international supply chains. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) found that the pandemic will significantly increase risks to food security and hinder humanitarian assistance operations. Even before the virus struck, at the end of 2019, the Global Network Against Food Crises found that 135 million people across 55 countries and territories experienced acute food insecurity.

Developing skills in farming and a move towards self-sufficiency in domestic food production must be at the centre of every country’s plan for a sustainable recovery. This will require a reversal of previous trends. UN research shows that as farming systems have modernised and intensified, the amount of land available for farming has been growing ever more slowly. On current trends, arable land will grow at a rate of 0.4% in countries for which data is available, despite improvements in irrigation and farming technology.

Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the UN FAO has already called on nations to ‘strengthen local production and shorten food supply chains’. Noting the potential for improved technological infrastructure to improve agricultural efficiency, Qu says ‘The crisis opens an opportunity to accelerate food system transformation’, ‘New business models are needed. It is the time to speed-up e-commerce in agriculture and food systems across the globe.’ I have instructed my bank, Hinduja Bank Switzerland, to develop this field so that it may become a reality for our clients across the world with India as our starting point.

This starts with education, which goes further to shape the world of the future than any other intervention. The next generation of workers, political leaders and opinion formers must be trained and literate in the new priorities for the post-virus world. We must value agriculture, horticulture, hygiene and caring skills above all else. That should be reflected in our children’s curriculum and educational funding. As Co-Chair of the UN Global Accelerator Programme, I want to use this platform to encourage young entrepreneurs to take up the mantle in this regard.

National governments will need to create attractive schemes for students from different walks of life to want to live in semi-urban and rural development areas.

Stories of panic buying in the early stages of the pandemic have led us to consider our food system. In the West, we have become used to just-in-time supply chains and a rapacious hunger for choice when it comes to food, with no regard to seasonality or where our food comes from. In time we may come to see this as emblematic of an era of unsustainable consumption, and change our ways.

The developing world will leapfrog the West – it must not develop this unsustainable system, but should instead be at the forefront of creating an entirely new food system. Food production will work in harmony with the land and the seasons, designed according to principles of hygiene and providing employment for new rural communities. Population density will decrease, and community nursing and caring, teachers from our own communities will be ever more important.

The role of semi-urban and rural communities in sustainable development is not a new agenda. My own father, Mr S. P. Hinduja, was among the first to champion to the concept at the UN, and I picked up the theme when I addressed the UN General Assembly in 2014. In countries like India, we urged Governments and development agencies to build and develop semi urban and rural communities centred around the family. As we navigate through the crisis, a rural revolution can point the way to a sustainable future. It is vital that those privileged to gain international education that they return to their communities to help with this work.

Rural development and lower population density can be compatible with continued economic growth and sustainability. Developing agricultural infrastructure will create employment opportunities across the skills spectrum and will sustainably deploy the natural capital of less developed countries. My father’s visionary approach of so many years ago has today become the reality and the truth of our future.

We cannot, however, allow this crisis to foster a culture of dependence on international aid in the form of handouts. In the past 20 years, under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, huge progress has been made in ensuring that support for the developing world builds resilience and independence. We must ensure that the world we build after this pandemic is one in which developing countries shape their own destinies, create economies that reflect their own values, and learn their own lessons from the crisis.

When this virus passes, we will have the opportunity to remake the world. As we all suffer at the hands of a common enemy, we must show compassion for one another – and consider what it is we value in society. We must call on national and international leaders to clear their minds, listen to nature, and reflect on what we have learned in this crisis.

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Chair of Hinduja Bank, Co-Chair of the United Nations Global Accelerator and Professor of Leadership at the University of Bolton’s Institute of Management