As policymakers evaluate trade-offs between poverty alleviation and inequality reduction in order to build back better from the global pandemic, agriculture should take center stage.
Policies to invest, restructure and transform have the potential to advance equitable livelihoods, promote economic growth, and build resilience to shocks and stressors, if they are included by policymakers in the recovery agenda.
By Renea Diana Williams, Marcela Aguinaga Arcon, and Betel Hailemariam
The COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the achievement of SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). Before the pandemic, experts estimated the world would not end poverty by 2030. Now, 71 million more people will live in extreme poverty due to COVID-19. Similarly, the pandemic has increased inequalities since it disproportionately affects vulnerable people.
During this difficult time, global leaders have been confronted with challenges that will require unprecedented strategies. We argue below that it also opens up opportunities for creating policies that simultaneously reduce poverty and inequalities. As policymakers evaluate trade-offs between poverty alleviation and inequality reduction, agriculture should take center stage. 80% of the world’s poor live in rural areas, relying on farming activities and facing environmental, information and economic inequalities that threaten inclusive growth.
We propose three policy recommendations grounded in a track-record of success, with the potential to be scaled up. Policies to invest, restructure and transform have the potential to advance equitable livelihoods, promote economic growth, and build resilience to shocks and stressors, if they are included by policymakers in the recovery agenda.
Invest in Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Strategies Driven by Human Centered Design (HCD) 
Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change, while contributing nearly one-third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which exacerbates poverty and inequality in rural areas. CSA uptake and sustainable intensification (SI) is increasing nutritious productivity, reversing land degradation, and building climate resilience for the world’s most vulnerable, and has led to over 80% increases in household incomes as a result of sustainable, high-quality yields.
Climate induced natural disasters exacerbate poverty, leading to $23.6 billion in direct economic losses across 63 countries in 2018. 73% ($17.1 billion) of these disasters were recorded in the agricultural sector. Therefore site-specific DRR strategies driven by HCD— and increased local participation in decision-making— provides an opportunity to accentuate the voices of the marginalized while optimizing agricultural livelihoods.
Understanding existing local capacities to use CSA enables the design of human-centered DRR strategies for agricultural communities most affected by climate change, increases food security, and reduces poverty (linked to SDG 2 (aero hunger). Investing in CSA and DRR indirectly reduces inequality, by building local resilience to shocks and stressors, and restores vulnerable agroecosystems for climate change resilience (linked to SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land).
Restructure the Market to Legitimize, and Normalize, Participation from Underrepresented Populations 
Agriculture has contributed to over 50% of poverty reduction in developing countries compared to other income sources, but farmers are disconnected from resources, markets, extension services, and social protection systems. While smallholders have pursued environmental management and diversified their livelihoods through market exchange to reduce their vulnerability, only about two-fifths of the world’s smallholder farmers are participating in formal markets along the agri-food value chain.
Rising food demand is estimated to increase by at least 20% globally over the next 15 years, revealing an opportunity to revitalize the local economy and alleviate poverty through market-based approaches to agriculture that recognize farmers as entrepreneurs—by connecting them to input providers, extension services and lucrative consumer bases to support microenterprise development. Market inclusion requires the removal of policy barriers such as insecure land tenure laws, and incentives to invest in sustainability such as green certification that allows smallholders to compete in new niche markets locally and globally.
Additionally, a majority of the agricultural labor force is made up of an aging population and women in small-scale and subsistence farming, but they have limited access to support services. It is imperative that women and youth are supported via extension services and productive resources to maximize yields, increase income generating potential, and reduce inequality of economic opportunity.
Transform the Agriculture Sector Through the Expansion of Digital Infrastructure that Adapts to Evolving Global Challenges and Meets Smallholders’ Network Needs 
Digital Farming, or Smart Agriculture, will democratize access to information and bridge gaps to smallholders who have traditionally been excluded from the formal market and agri-food value chain through financial inclusion. Existing digital tools, or information and community technologies (ICTs), in the agriculture system are already lending to more engaged consumers and producers, smarter farms and improved public services. These include virtual farmer field schools (FFS) and distributed ledger technologies for value chain traceability which build a strong, more informed, global farming community. Digital infrastructure bridges physical market gaps. It can therefore provide rural communities and marginalized groups such as women greater access to customizable inputs and services to ensure equal economic opportunity, reduce inequalities of outcome and improve social inclusion that leaves no farmer behind (SDG 5 (gender equality).
The global pandemic is, without a doubt, a tragedy on the road toward reducing poverty and inequalities. Recovery efforts should be directed toward smallholder farmers accounting for more than two billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Although the pandemic has shed light on the existing vulnerabilities of the food system, it is an opportunity for local and national governments and international actors to engage in holistic mitigation and adaptation strategies for existing and new global challenges.
A bottom-up approach to poverty alleviation empowers local communities to holistically deal with lived challenges through repurposing agricultural support in a way that is consistent with broader socio-economic policy, and managing multiple demands that are crucial to a pro-poor approach to mitigate livelihood inequality. One such example is an agroecological approach to reducing hunger, inequalities, and poverty. It embodies the three policy recommendations outlined previously and has been shown to improve farmers’ incomes up to 30%, increase yields up to 130%, and build stronger, more diverse agriculture networks. The co-creation of knowledge— driven by participatory, farmer-to-farmer exchanges— balances ecological soundness, economic viability and social justice. By understanding existing capacities and knowledge, policymakers can avoid redundancy and one-size-fits-all approaches to development.
This article was authored by Renea Diana Williams, Marcela Aguinaga Arcon, and Betel Hailemariam. Williams is a GW Presidential Fellow pursuing an M.A. in International Development Studies at The George Washington University with a specialization in sustainability as it relates to environmental conservation and local capacity-building. Aguinaga Arcon is a Fulbright Scholar pursuing an M.A. in International Development Studies at The George Washington University with a specialization in rural development. Hailemariam is pursuing an M.A. in International Development Studies at The George Washington University with a specialization in agricultural and rural development.
 SDG Targets: 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, 2.4, 6.6, 10.1, 11.5, 13.1, 15.3
 SDG Targets: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.3, 5.5, 5.a, 10.1
 SDG Targets: 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 2.3, 2.a, 5.b, 9.c, 10.2
 SDG Targets: 1.2, 1.4, 2.3, 9.4, 10.2, 10.6, 13.b
 The implementation of pro-poor, agriculturally-based policies have the potential to increase crop productivity and food security [SDG 2 (zero hunger)], reduce poverty and inequality [SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities)], and build resilience to global challenges from COVID-19 to climate change [SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land)].