Gilbert F. Houngbo: An optimistic perspective on rural transformation

Gilbert F. Houngbo, former Prime Minister of Togo and the new President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), outlines how he intends to lead the organisation in tackling global issues such as youth migration and gender inequality in poor, rural areas.

Gilbert F. Houngbo, the new president of IFAD, outlines his positive perspective on rural transformation © IFAD

You have extensive experience in politics, international development and financial management; how will your background shape your leadership of IFAD and help you to maximise its impact? 

I believe strongly that my experience in international development and government management for a small, low-income country gives me a different perspective on the problems facing development. What comes to mind is the importance of cooperating with others to address the multi-dimensional aspects of the international development puzzle, i.e. in addition to rural and agricultural development you have, for example, the education sector; these must go hand in hand if we are to achieve a sustainable result.  

I believe in focusing on the end result. The end result is poverty alleviation, food and nutrition security, and equality. So my focus will be on achieving these concrete results.  

Which aspects of IFAD’s work do you feel most strongly about tackling first and foremost? 

With IFAD, there is a tremendous opportunity to scale up our impact on poverty alleviation in the rural setting. It is extremely exciting for me to play a role in lifting people out of poverty and improving their situation. I am enthusiastic about working with farmer organisations and local communities in addressing various challenges from women’s inequality to youth employment, agricultural productivity, and engaging with the private sector to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of our young women and men in the field. I am very optimistic, despite the odds, that in the coming 10-15 years, under the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, rural transformation will move forward. 

I feel strongly about a focus on women because it is well documented that the multiplying effect of a project’s impact on the rural community is several times higher when the focus is on women. Access to land, and titling and inheritance issues have a direct impact on rural women and the rural population, and it breaks my heart to see that we are not moving fast enough on this, despite good intentions.  

With changing government priorities and current global emergencies, such as the famine in the Horn of Africa, how do you intend to keep donors focused on long-term development needs? 

What is sad is that it’s not the first time the Horn of Africa has been associated with negative words such as war, famine and civil unrest. This in itself tells you that, on the one hand, the solution is clearly humanitarian work, but we should not lose sight of the lasting solution which is long-term investment in food production, in the fight against inequality and in improving productivity so that these crises do not occur again. And when you talk about long-term investment, you talk about financing and therefore you talk about IFAD’s ability, through its loan and grant programme, to help communities in rural areas in the long-term. So it is important that the message to our donors is that it is important to collectively invest in long-term agricultural production in order to transition from humanitarian assistance to being able to live without support.  

In taking up your new position, you have stated that investing in the rural youth is essential to stem the global migration crisis. This is currently a common mantra in the development sector – but how will you lead IFAD to really make a difference and provide youth with better opportunities in rural areas? 

I am nourishing the ambition of having a special initiative on rural youth employment. This will contribute to the solution to what I call ‘forced economic migration’ and help to make migration a choice, and not a must.  

We need to work together with foundations and with the private sector, both domestic and international, to directly fund youngsters who have good ‘bankable’ projects. If youngsters form a cooperative of 5 or 10 people and only need a few hundred dollars to generate rural activity, this will improve their lives in the rural setting. With such opportunities, the youth may not feel like they need to move to the capital or big cities, which is the first step towards international migration. This is where IFAD has an important role to play. I do believe that we will end up having programmes that help youngsters generate enough rural activity, and which also tackle the hardships of rural work because, let’s face it, if you only improve production but do not look at the hardships of life in a rural setting, youths will still be willing to go to the capital. 

CTA and IFAD have a history of positive collaboration particularly on knowledge, management and agri-finance projects. What are the benefits of this kind of collaboration? 

I see this cooperation as an important vehicle to make IFAD better known so that people are more aware they can count on us for loans. I believe such cooperation will improve knowledge dissemination, which will help youths and farmer associations better assess the situation in their local area – in terms of what will work for agribusinesses. The collaboration also means that the latest techniques to practice agriculture that are, for example, less labour intensive and more respectful to the environment, will be better understood. I expect that by working together, we can boost productivity and bring development to a higher level.

Sophie Reeve

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.