The pandemic has exposed rural communities living on the edge, where persistent inequality acts as a multiplier to social and economic disruption.
For the first time in thirty years, poverty is set to rise. Global institutions warn that millions will be pushed into poverty this year with far-reaching consequences for health, education and living standards.
During this period, most self-employed workers have been affected by income or job losses and reported savings of up to one month. One of the worst affected sectors were agriculture, livestock and fisheries, where 70% of workers have seen their income reduced and 21% have lost their jobs as of end of March.
Natural disasters, like cyclones or floods, demand early preparedness and addressing risks and vulnerabilities before these events occur. The same applies to the current crisis.
Even before the pandemic hit, rural communities in Malaysia already face higher levels of poverty, lower income levels, and lower levels of educational attainment than urban areas.
Over 7 million of our population lives in rural towns, villages or settlements. The states of Sabah, Kelantan and Perlis – the most financially affected by the partial lockdown – have significant rural populations. Rural communities are exposed to the global turmoil but are excluded in multiple ways from what urban households can access– leading to widening of existing disparities.
Building resilience, the ability to use resources and recover from shocks without compromising long-term prospects, is essential. Without resilience, vulnerable rural individuals and households fall deeper into poverty and debt, educational opportunity is reduced, leading to even lower capacity to respond to the next shock.
Strengthen social safety net and promote decent work
Promotion of decent work is integral to a strong social safety net. Daily wage workers, small farmers and informal workers are the most vulnerable to economic shocks. Working conditions for them does not automatically lead to uplifting of their socioeconomic condition, and retirement savings – if any – are dismal.
Rural women in particular will benefit from a conducive and supportive environment to upgrade informal work into micro- or small enterprises.
Leave no child behind
Online learning modalities such as Google Classroom and video conferencing tools are making sure education continues despite school closure. However, children who lack reliable broadband access or have not acquired basic computer literacy skills, are unable to benefit.
Rural households may not have Wi-Fi, or earn a reliable and sufficient source of income to have multiple devices such as smartphones, laptops or tablets for each child. The lack of tailored programs for rural settings means children from rural schools will fall further behind those who have mastered new skills.
Missing out on digital literacy effectively reduces their economic opportunities and employability in the future.
Develop human capital and diversify rural economy
Developing human capital in rural areas should be in line with the future goals and direction of the region. Attracting youths and graduates to competitive and decent jobs in rural areas depends on adequate infrastructure, digitisation, entrepreneurial training and shifting to a green economy.
One of the underlying issues for rural SME’s is the lack of incentive for growth and adoption of new practices or technology.
Social enterprises that are connected to the community are key to tapping into an online market for local produce. The use of digital platforms requires strong commitment to provide connectivity and training for entrepreneurs to take part in the platform. Arguably, it also links back to basics: the degree of digital and financial literacy for rural students in their educational pathways.
Emerging issues in sustainability and food security will become increasingly pressing. Diversifying crops,encouraging eco-tourism and agro-tourism initiatives, and creating value from natural ecosystems over the long term is crucial.
Plan for community needs in health services
Rural patients often have to travel longer distances for specialist care and treatment. For low-income households, key health challenges are related to nutrition, mental health, reproductive health, and non-communicable diseases. Though rural areas are most underserved due to geographic distances and low population density, the promise of telehealth has not been fully realised despite the increasing burden of chronic diseases.
The organisation and delivery of rural healthcare services will need to involve state governments and continue to improve in quality and accessibility.
In conclusion, more global shockwaves are expected in the future. Building resilience is not optional.
In carrying out its rural development policy for 2030, the government should identify local actors in local government, city councils, civil society, businesses, artists, institutions like universities, to drive community aspirations and inclusive development.
Inclusivity – a word that is used widely – implies a shift in policy making that is more consultative and conscious of unique characteristics of each rural locality.
Shifting from process indicators to outcome indicators aligned to community needs will need the participation of researchers and public policy specialists. The impact of rural transformation centres should be evaluated from the qualitative perspective of users and businesses over time, beyond aggregate indicators of how many participated in its programs.
Services offered should continue to evolve with the needs of the community. Rural research can help policy design by capturing how different policies link to each other and how they are performing in each location, and to inform planning policies for governments.
The future of rural communities is closely related with that of urban towns and cities, and their resilience to withstand and recover from challenges is essential to the nation as a whole.