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The Department for International Development’s aid programmes have helped the rural poor in developing countries. But poverty in rural areas must be substantially reduced if DFID is to meet its targets, according to a report out today by the National Audit Office.

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More than 1.1 billion people worldwide are living in extreme poverty. Around 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas. The rural poor tend to be significantly poorer than the poor in non-rural areas, and have lower rates of access to services such as education and health.

The Department for International Development has performance targets designed to contribute to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, to halve poverty by 2015. Despite trends towards urbanisation, two-thirds of the world’s poor will still live in rural areas in 2015 so tackling rural poverty is vital if DFID is to meet these targets. Under its performance targets DFID already gives priority to countries which have a higher than average proportion of rural poverty.

Today’s report looks at how DFID is addressing rural poverty through its projects and programmes, through its funding of multilateral institutions and through funding of research.

Over the past two decades, DFID and other donors have significantly reduced the proportion of funding to traditionally rural sectors such as agriculture, while increasing the proportion of funding to economic and governance sectors and to social sectors such as education and health which benefit both urban and rural poor. The report highlights that DFID’s expenditure on livelihoods has remained almost the same in real terms over the past five years despite an upward trend in country budgets over the same period.

The report found that DFID is delivering real benefits to the rural poor. DFID staff reported that three-quarters of its rural projects and programmes were either ‘completely’ or ‘largely’ achieving their objectives. Nevertheless, the lack of reliable data at sub-national level in many developing countries means that it is hard to assess whether rural areas are receiving their fair share of investment. DFID does not systematically analyse how much of its aid is reaching rural areas. It estimates, however, that two thirds of its support benefits the rural poor.

An in-depth understanding of country circumstances is essential in tackling rural poverty and requires DFID staff to have first hand experience of the situation in rural areas. The report found a decrease in the number of staff with explicit expertise in rural issues and wide variations in the time spent by DFID overseas staff in rural areas.

DFID also reaches the rural poor through funding multilateral organisations. Although several bodies did have a clear focus on rural development, the European Union, the largest recipient of DFID funding, spends a significantly lower proportion of its funding on the poorest countries and those with the highest rural populations. Some multilaterals which do put strong emphasis on rural development attracted low DFID ratings for effectiveness, limiting the benefits of DFID’s funding.

The Department spends significant sums on research to help reduce rural poverty, for example it recently committed £200 million over five years to research into sustainable agriculture. DFID research aims to reach a wide range of audiences but many country teams reported that they did not make use of research either for their own programmes or to influence recipient government policy.

Among its recommendations, the NAO says that DFID should:

  • have a more explicit recognition of the rural poor in its analysis, planning and monitoring of country assistance to allow better assessment and adjustment of programmes
  • work with development partners to obtain better data while making full use of existing data to verify the appropriateness of its plans and give early warning of emerging problems
  • employ sufficient expertise on rural development issues within its advisory groups at the centre and in country offices to ensure that its programmes are effectively addressing the needs of the rural poor
  • seek closer engagement with country teams on the use of research, as well as building better dissemination arrangements for future research projects.

“The rural poor do not always receive as much aid and assistance as their numbers warrant. Despite urbanisation, the majority of the world’s poorest people still live in rural settings and by 2015 two thirds of the poor will still be there.

“We acknowledge the difficulties in reaching the rural poor. DFID must continue its good work providing much needed aid to developing countries, but with a stronger focus on the most vulnerable people in rural areas.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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