World Social Report 2021: Reconsidering Rural Development


This report was published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) in May 2021. It is the second edition of the World Social Report series – UN DESA’s annual flagship publication discussing "major social development issues" across the world. The 2021 edition analyses existing strategies for rural development and highlights how they have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It notes that income alone is not a sufficient measure of rural development. The report advocates for the study of the "environmental dimension" of rural development – the effects of economic activities on the natural environment. It also recommends strategies and policy actions for sustainable development of rural areas.

The report states that rural areas play an important role in determining the ecology and environmental conditions of both developing and developed countries. In low-income and lower-middle-income countries, the rural population comprises about 67 and 60 per cent respectively of the total population. In high-income countries, on the other hand, the population residing in rural areas comprises about one-fifth of the total population. This reveals how development of rural areas is essential for reducing structural inequalities across the globe and protecting the health of the planet.

This 174-page report is divided into five chapters: Introduction (Chapter I); Rural development for inclusive growth and a balanced settlement of the population (Chapter II); Poverty, inequality and rural development (Chapter III); Rural development within planetary boundaries (Chapter IV); and Policy recommendations (Chapter V).


  1. The global rural population in 2015 was around 3.4 billion and is expected to decline to 3.1 billion by the year 2050. Citing a 2018 World Bank publication, the report notes that four out of five people living below the international poverty line reside in rural areas.

  2. As high as 90 per cent of the world’s rural population lives in countries where 30 per cent or more of the national population lives in rural areas.

  3. The report states that while current agricultural practices in rural areas such as the growing use of chemical fertilizers – have led to an increase in global food production, they have contributed immensely to the degradation of land and water resources. The use of global freshwater resources has increased sixfold over the last century. The agricultural sector alone accounts for around 70 per cent of the total freshwater withdrawals, used primarily for irrigation.

  4. Agricultural productivity must increase to ensure the economic development of rural areas, the report observes. Despite this need, there has been severe underinvestment in the agricultural sector across countries.

  5. In 2017, the median level of agricultural capital stock (agricultural assets used for production) per worker in low-income countries was only three per cent of the agricultural capital stock per worker in high-income countries. Many low- and middle-income nations spend less than one per cent of their agricultural GDP on research. This, the report notes, leads to "subpar innovation effort." 

  6. The report states that gender inequalities in rural areas keep women from accessing crucial resources such as land, technology and financial services. This greatly hinders agricultural productivity as women are often the primary agricultural workers. In developing countries, a 20-30 per cent increase in the amount of land owned by women would lead to a 2.5-4 per cent growth in total agricultural output, the report notes.

  7. In the year 2019, most of the 3.8 billion people worldwide who did not use the internet resided in rural areas. In the same year, residents of rural areas were 40 per cent less likely to use mobile internet services as compared to urban residents.

  8. Citing data from UNICEF released in the year 2020, the report notes that about 463 million students worldwide were “cut off from education” during the Covid-19 pandemic because they could not access digital or broadcast remote learning programs. As high as 70 per cent of such students lived in rural areas.

  9. Indigenous people living in rural areas are twice as likely to live in extreme poverty compared to the non-indigenous population.

  10. As of 2020, about 55 per cent of the indigenous people who were employed worked in the agricultural sector. Conversely, only 27 per cent of the total non-indigenous population worked in this sector. Indigenous people, the report adds, are also more likely to work in informal sectors.

  11. According to an ILO report released in 2017, 56 per cent of the global rural population lacked health coverage, revealing the inadequate access to essential health services in rural areas. On the other hand, about 22 per cent of the population residing in urban areas were deprived of sufficient health coverage.

  12. By the year 2030, the report estimates, as high as 20 per cent of the global rural population will not have access to drinking water, and 41 per cent will lack access to basic sanitation facilities.

  13. To better align rural development with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030, the report recommends a rethinking of current strategies, particularly in agriculture. It promotes a shift to "circular and conservation practices" such as organic farming, wastewater recycling and reforestation in rural areas.

    Focus and Factoids by Chhotelal Kumar.

    PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 


United Nations 


Mar, 2021