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Population change in the rural developing world: making the transition

Research report

Written by Sharada Keats, Steve Wiggins

Research report

Reviewing demographic change in rural areas of the developing world since 1990, this report asks:

  •  What is special about demography in rural areas of the developing world? What are the main changes being seen?
  •  What are the main drivers of rural demography, and how are they evolving?
  •  What, given these drivers, is likely to happen to rural populations in the future? What does this imply for policy?

Across the world, rural areas are going through a demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality, while seeing out-migration to urban areas. In some rural areas, populations are no longer growing, but are declining. Even where the rural population still grows, much of this reflects inertial growth from former high fertility: in most countries the cohort of rural children aged zero to four is shrinking, presaging future population decline.

  • One important change is that demographic change promotes women’s empowerment in rural areas: fewer pregnancies, coupled with more schooling for girls, give women more scope to work, migrate, earn and gain status and autonomy.
  • A second change is that dependency ratios are falling in rural areas, delivering a demographic dividend that can boost growth. Owing to out-migration, however, labour shortages are being reported for agriculture. That may mean more use of machinery; it will certainly mean higher wages. And it should lead to consolidation of operated areas, even if not concentration of farm ownership. 
  • Out-migration from rural areas is likely to persist and intensify in the future.
Sharada Keats and Steve Wiggins