Empowering the poor

Mark Malloch Brown argues that environment protection and sustainable
human development are essential to winning the
war against poverty

Our planet’s capacity to sustain us is eroding. This threat is global, but most severe in the developing world. The decline of major ecosystems has had an especially brutal impact on the poor, particularly poor women and children. Helping arrest and reverse environmental decline is one of the most important steps that could be taken to improve the lives of the 1.2 billion people who still live on less than $1 a day. If we fail to do so, the consequences will be devastating.

Consider the following:

Agricultural land – In developing countries, the pace of soil degradation has accelerated over the past 50 years and agricultural productivity is declining in many places, especially in Africa and Central America. Soil erosion has reduced global food production by 15 to 30 per cent.

Forests – Logging and conversion have shrunk the world’s forests by as much as half, and tropical deforestation probably now exceeds 130,000 square kilometres per year, contributing to global warming, loss of biodiversity and reduced access to forest resources on which the poor depend.

Water – One-third of the world’s people now live in countries where water is in short supply, and about one in every five people lacks access to safe drinking water. The increasingly urgent struggle in many regions of the world for access to shared water resources has the potential to escalate into military conflict, making development efforts in those regions that much more difficult.

Fisheries – The reduction of marine, coastal and freshwater natural fish stocks threatens many of the world’s poor who depend on fish as their primary source of protein.

Energy – Two billion people lack access to basic energy services for cooking, heating and lighting, and remain largely dependent on fuelwood to meet their daily energy needs.

Climate change – Developing countries are likely to have the most difficult time responding to the consequences of global warming. Shifting agricultural zones and the rise of sea levels could have disastrous effects on many communities that have little capacity to cope with such changes (1).

Unfortunately, efforts by the international community to address these problems have so far been inadequate. The global response to both poverty and environmental decline has been too small, narrowly focused and uncoordinated given the scale of the challenges. Too often in the past, policies and programmes to reduce poverty and promote growth have been at the expense of the environment, while efforts to protect the environment have not always taken into account the interests of the poor. Ensuring environmental sustainability must become a critical development priority, and it must be an integral component of strategies aimed at reducing poverty.

Effective partnerships
Discussions about the relationship between poverty and environment are often dominated by ‘vicious circle’ or ‘downward spiral’ metaphors – by the idea that population growth and inadequate resources will compel the poor to exhaust their natural resource base, leading to environmental degradation and thereby further entrenching poverty.

But this story, by itself, is incomplete and misleading. In many instances, the primary sources of land and resource misuse are the non-poor, commercial interests and the state. And while there are, to be sure, instances where poor people and their environment have become locked in a downward spiral, this situation is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Rather, experience has shown that it is often the direct result of failures in governance and policy (2).

In fact, a growing body of experience from around the world points to significant ‘win-win’ opportunities for reducing poverty while addressing urgent environmental concerns. What we now have to do is to help governments and civil society develop their capacity to pursue these opportunities systematically. And in particular, there is an urgent need for more effective partnerships with the poor, to empower them to implement their own solutions.
The health of our planet and its people is the most important legacy that we will leave for future generations
We know this approach can produce exciting results. For instance, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Promoting Farmer Innovation pilot programme in Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda has demonstrated the potential of local knowledge and creativity to improve both rural livelihoods and the environment. The programme’s focus is on innovators – local farmers who are experimenting and developing better land husbandry techniques themselves. It starts by documenting local farmer innovations such as improved water harvesting, erosion control and agro-ecological farming practices. Visits between innovators are arranged, networks are developed to exchange ideas among them, and then other farmers are invited to observe and learn from ‘best-bet’ innovations.

The energy sector offers especially promising potential for sustainable development. Measures that promote renewable energy and increase the efficiency of energy use can be used as a tool simultaneously to reach multiple development objectives, including job creation and poverty reduction, while also protecting the environment and helping to mitigate climate change. For instance, experiments in China have shown that agricultural wastes can be transformed from a problem to a valuable resource to produce electricity, cooking gas and heat to foster rural development. Demonstration projects elsewhere show that photovoltaic technology can provide a clean energy source for many rural communities that currently have no access to electricity in any form.

Another promising example is the UNDP/Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme. This global network provides decision-makers and practitioners alike with a unique resource for accessing knowledge and experience in community-level approaches to conserving biodiversity, mitigating global climate change and protecting international waters. Currently operating in 56 countries, the programme has supported a wide range of non-governmental organization and community activities that demonstrate ‘win-win’ approaches to addressing local environmental and livelihood needs while contributing to global environmental sustainability. Some examples include the sustainable use of non-timber forest products to promote alternative sources of income and employment among communities living in and around globally significant protected areas; the use of agricultural wastes in biogas production as an alternative to gathering fuelwood from forests; and integrated pest management to improve the sustainability of food production while reducing agricultural run-off and pollution of international waters.

Pivotal opportunities
The Millennium Summit, and the Rio+10 Earth Summit in 2002, are pivotal opportunities to launch a concerted global effort to move the poverty and environment agenda forward in a more coordinated and complementary manner. These opportunities should be used to forge an integrated agenda for sustaining human development behind which all sectors of the international community can rally.

Much of the groundwork has already been laid in the declarations and action plans from the major United Nations conferences of the last decade. The challenge now is to use the social, economic and environmental agendas of the global conferences to build a coherent framework for action, with clear goals and achievable targets backed-up by adequate resources and effective and transparent monitoring mechanisms. In this important process, the new UNDP stands ready and willing to help – for example, by building on the valuable experience of our Capacity 21 programme and its wider network of partners in helping countries to formulate and implement integrated strategies for sustainable development. As an agency dedicated to help address the needs of the poor through a combination of articulate advocacy and sound, sensible policy advice, we have two clear roles to play.

First, we must work to help keep these issues firmly on the global agenda. UNDP is starting to work towards helping develop an alternative vision of globalization that acknowledges the vast potential of open markets and new technologies for generating strong economic growth, but seeks to manage the process better to ensure it brings the poor into the mainstream of the global economy in an environmentally sustainable way. Second, we must leverage examples of ‘win-win’ outcomes by better understanding the key ingredients for success, and helping governments to translate these lessons into pro-poor, pro-environment policies and institutions that can catalyse much wider responses. By combining our own expertise with that of UNEP and our many other partners across the United Nations system, member states and civil society, we can and must help ensure that a global response to these environmental challenges is reinforced and supplemented with comprehensive grassroots action.

Above all, we must always keep in mind what is at stake: the health of our planet and its people is the most important legacy that we will leave for future generations

Mark Malloch Brown is the Administrator of UNDP.

PHOTOGRAPH: Yaohua Feng/UNEP/Still Pictures

1. World Resources Institute, 2000. A Guide to World Resources 2000-2001 (Our Planet article), People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and World Resources Institute.

2. Based on work carried out under the joint UNDP-European Commission Poverty and Environment Initiative.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on The Way Ahead, 1997, including:
Theodore Panayotou: Win-win finance
Shridath Ramphal: Now the rich must adjust
Issue on Food and Sustainable Development, 1996, including:
Nurul Islam: Securely sustainable
Jules N. Pretty: Sustainability works
Jac Smit: Farm the city
Kristalina Georgieva: Disproportionate effects (Beyond 2000) 2000
Robert L. Thompson, Merlinda Ingco and Lynn R. Brown: Liberal rations (Beyond 2000) 2000
Anders Wijkman: The stuff of life (Water) 1996