19. Rural Economy

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
1.2, 2.3, 8.2
Relevant Policy Outcomes

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

Rural areas are home to most of the poor. According to ILO calculations, 88 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, where poverty rates are four times higher than in urban areas and decent work deficits are typically severe. The rural/urban divide becomes even more apparent when considering poverty rates for people in employment. Nearly 20 per cent of people employed in rural areas live in extreme poverty, compared with just over 4 per cent in urban areas (WESO 2016).

Rural areas are characterized by governance gaps and informality. Gender inequalities in rural areas are pervasive. If women in rural areas had the same access to agriculture assets, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million39. Rural labour markets are often dysfunctional. Labour market institutions are weak, as are their  organization and representation. Underemployment is widespread and incomes are generally low. Access to social protection is extremely limited. Rural workers are often vulnerable, and in numerous circumstances, are not fully covered by national labour law, while more broadly, their rights are often not realized or enforced. Indigenous and tribal peoples are particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Because of this vulnerability and lack of organization, the voice of rural workers is often not heard in relation to both rural development and broader economic and social development.

Common challenges to unleashing the potential of rural areas include low productivity; underinvestment in agriculture and non-farm rural employment; lack of adequate infrastructure; poor occupational safety and health and working conditions; and limited or no access to services, including financial services. Additional pressures in rural economies result from conflict, natural resource depletion and climate change.

The rural economy holds considerable potential for economic growth, employment creation and promotion of decent work if the right policies are in place. The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda, as an integrated rights-based development strategy, supports tripartite constituents in their efforts to promote sustainable rural livelihoods.

However, rural areas are also characterized by great diversity and should not be considered as being exclusively agricultural. There is a mixture of on-and off-farm activities ranging from smallholder agriculture or pastoralism to highly sophisticated commercial agribusiness supplying global markets through intense regional and national linkages with industrial and services sectors (56).

Rural development has been on ILO’s agenda since it was established in 1919. Since then, the ILO has adopted over 30 international labour standards that directly target agriculture and rural development, covering rights at work, employment opportunities, social protection and social dialogue. In 2008, the ILC discussion on rural employment, which culminated in the adoption of a Resolution and Conclusions on promoting rural employment for poverty reduction, set a mandate for renewed ILO involvement in rural development issues. In March 2011, the Governing Body adopted a strategy on promoting decent work for rural development, which called for particular attention to areas such as rural entrepreneurship, enterprises and cooperatives; employment-intensive employment strategies; appropriate skills development; extended social security coverage; occupational safety and health; and the systematic inclusion of rural dimensions and actors when developing and implementing employment and social protection policies. Informed by these developments, decent work in the Rural Economy became one of eight “areas of critical importance (ACI)” for the biennium 2014–15, and since then constitutes one of the Office’s ten policy outcomes.

The ILO’s approach to rural poverty aims at increasing the overall resilience of rural communities and their capacity to address such challenges through the Decent Work Agenda. This approach is based on three main goals: increasing the voice of rural people through organization of communities and promotion of rights, standards and social dialogue; promoting an employment based rural development model through diversified livelihoods, sustainable enterprises and better integration in value chains; and providing social protection floors which guarantee minimum income and access to basic services in rural economies which are often very vulnerable to external shocks.

DWA-SDG Relationship

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda unambiguously states that “We will devote resources to developing rural areas and sustainable agriculture and fisheries, supporting smallholder farmers, especially women farmers, herders and fishers in developing countries, particularly least developed countries.” SDG 2 (end hunger) is the primary SDG associated with the rural economy, but many others, such as those dealing with water, energy, infrastructure, equality and the environment are of greatest importance to rural populations as well. The ILO promotes in particular SDG target 2.3: “By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment,” which is considered essential to reducing poverty (SDG 1).

The ILO’s work on promoting decent work in rural areas is organized under PO 5, which promotes a fully integrated approach that places decent work at the centre of national development frameworks and strategies. All four pillars of the decent work agenda must be promoted simultaneously to improve living and working conditions in rural areas.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

Rural workers (including plantation workers) and rural producers have been the subject of numerous specific ILO Conventions and Recommendations, and are referenced in many additional ILO instruments of a more general nature. A full list of these instruments can be found here.

The weakness of the collective voice of rural workers and employers has deep-rooted causes such as the fragmentation and low levels of membership of trade unions and employers’ organizations in rural areas. Strengthening the organization and representation of rural stakeholders – for example, through cooperatives and other social and social solidarity economy organizations – as well as improving the institutional framework for social dialogue is key for promoting decent work in the rural economy.

Gender inequalities and discrimination of groups in vulnerable situations are major challenges in the rural economy. Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls, whose empowerment is key to reducing poverty and hunger, and safeguarding the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples and of other groups vulnerable to discrimination, is an integral part of ILO’s work on the rural economy;

The agro-food, fishing and aquaculture sectors have tremendous potential to unlock inclusive, green and climate-resilient growth. On the other hand, rural communities in the developing world are suffering most from climate change and environmental degradation. Promoting environmental sustainability, climate resilient development and green jobs creation in these sectors is at the core of the ILO strategy on the rural economy.


In the area of Decent Work in the rural economy the ILO has established strong and constructive partnerships with UN agencies involved in agriculture and rural development, such as the Rome-based agencies (FAO, WFP, IFAD), as well as UNDP, the OECD, regional development banks and the World Bank Group, UNEP, UNFCC and SIDA. Together with these agencies and bilateral partners the ILO implements country level interventions to promote productive, decent jobs in the rural economy. The ILO is also involved in the FAO-hosted Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Task Force on Global Food and Nutrition Security (HLFT).

ILO Capacity

The ILO’s work on promoting decent work in the rural economy touches upon all four dimensions of the Decent Work Agenda and involves many different technical units at headquarters. While the Decent Work Technical Teams do not employ rural employment specialists per se, all technical specialists from various backgrounds can contribute their specific expertise in a complementary manner to design integrated and comprehensive rural employment programmes. The promotion of Decent Work in the rural economy can also benefit from the experience and tools of ILO’s local economic development programme, which aims to foster employment creation through harnessing the comparative advantages and the unique characteristics of localities and local territories.


The ILO Library guide includes a page on rural development which facilitates access to a broad range of material, grouped into different themes, sectors and regions. In addition, the ILO has compiled a portfolio of policy guidance notes on the promotion of decent work in the rural economy, which illustrates the ILO’s holistic approach to promoting decent work in the rural economy and brings together the broad range of instruments and tools developed over the past years. The ITC Turin maintains a web page dedicated to rural development.

39 - FAO 2016 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/52011/icode/

56. ILC. Report of the Committee on Rural Employment. Geneva : ILO, 2008.