Urbanization, Food Security, and Youth Employment


Patricia Langan crop_1Patricia Langan


Project Director, International Programs, Department of Hunger & Livelihoods

Shawnee Hoover

Associate Director, Global Policy & Advocacy, Save the Children


A stunning fact: nearly 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2050.

As our primary goal is to increase food and nutrition security for all people, we must consider the ability of youth to forge productive livelihoods so they can feed themselves and their families.
Youth today are highly mobile. According to the FAO, they represent the main share of migrants worldwide. Many are moving from rural to urban areas and leaving behind the traditional agriculture practiced by their families. Today’s youth make up the largest generation in human history, representing a quarter of the world’s population under age 24.
In understanding the ramifications of youth migration from agriculture, it’s important to consider the full nexus of youth, urbanization, and food security.
In rural environments, youths play an important role in the food security of their households and communities through on-farm as well as off-farm employment. Many youth are seeking new roles as innovators in agriculture, be it small-scale or commercial, rather than inheriting the traditional way of agricultural life.
With higher education levels, better literacy and numeracy, and more technological facility, youth can contribute to improving productivity, running farms more like businesses, and increasing profits. They can help the growth of markets, value chains, and commercial farming, and strengthen ancillary non-farm industries in rural areas.
To the extent we work with rural youth to increase farm productivity and build out livelihood opportunities in ancillary industries, more youth will want to stay in their rural communities rather than migrate to cities. In places such as Ethiopia, Mali, Nepal, and Nicaragua, Save the Children is doing such work.
Still, those youth with different aspirations than their parents will continue to look for non-farm employment in rural districts or migrate to find it in cities. This is completely rational. Youth in urban areas often have greater opportunities to access education, technology, and infrastructure than rural youth.
Working in 120 countries, Save the Children witnesses the push and pull effect on youth mobility. On the one hand, youth flee when they see life on the farm as an economic dead-end. On the other hand, they are attracted by the promise of cities for economic and social opportunity.
A comparison of seven country studies found that migration improves household food security. Similarly, recent studies in Bangladesh and Nigeria found youth migration had a net positive impact on food security.
Many youth migrate seasonally, and return home again to help with planting or harvest. When they migrate for wage jobs, they send remittances that help rural families’ food security. The remittances and increased skills brought back to rural areas through youth migration fuel positive impacts on poverty reduction and food security. We have to accept that migration is inevitable, whether temporary or permanent.
However, youth migration presents significant risks as well. Youth who migrate are more vulnerable in terms of personal safety and because they often enter into informal sectors with few social protections. Preventing and addressing inequalities and the dismal welfare of children and youth living in urban slums must also be part of the equation.
More research is needed to understand why and how youth migrate so policies and programs can better support the positive impacts of migration, limit the negative ones, and ensure the net effect is positive for food security in both rural and urban areas.
Research can also be helpful in enabling youth to get the education and training they need to improve the management and productivity of farms, investments of remittances, and help those who migrate do so successfully so as not to contribute to the growth of urban slums.
One approach is to focus on youth themselves, particularly on at-risk adolescents who are key to tackling malnutrition, by increasing their capacity to save and manage money, find decent jobs, and build their own businesses. For example, in the largest cities in Asia, Save the Children is providing migrant youth with trainings, job linkages, micro-business planning, and access to capital through its Skills to Succeed program. These skills better prepare youth whether they stay in urban areas or migrate back to the countryside.
One important step the U.S. Congress can take right now is to enact the Global Food Security Act, which requires the United States to pursue a coordinated strategy across 11 federal agencies on global food and nutrition security. Channeling that level of concerted investment will be a critical step in helping to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030 while ensuring no one is left behind, including adolescent girls and youth living in poverty.  

This post was created in coordination with the Chicago Council 2016 Global Food Security Symposium and originally appeared on The Chicago Council for Global Affairs website.