Rural development has not received the priority and attention warranted by the present and future concentration of poverty in rural areas. Is this perhaps because rural development agencies present conflicting narratives? A framework is presented within which to answer that question, and is then applied to the recent policy statements of the EU, FAO, IFAD and the World Bank. Each policy statement is compelling in its own way, but the strategies are not consistent. A narrative is needed which: recognises the rapid pace of change in rural areas; acknowledges the overriding need for diversification out of agriculture; builds market institutions for growth; and works effectively within the current international consensus on poverty reduction, emphasising opportunity, empowerment and security.