Population change in the rural developing world: making the transition

Briefing papers
May 2016
Sharada Keats and Steve Wiggins

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.