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Poverty: Casting Long Shadows

Poverty is a complex, multidimensional problem that casts long shadows over many areas of existence. This backgrounder focuses on poverty's relationship to issues of population, health, environment and education.

Poverty and Population

There are many reasons for the international community's failure to stem the tide of world poverty. Unsustainably rapid population growth is one.

It has frequently been pointed out that even if there were an equitable distribution of wealth, it would nevertheless be illogical to assume that the human population could continue escalating without people becoming poorer as a result. The pie would continually need to be divided into smaller pieces as the population grew.

As it is, the world's population has more than doubled in the last 45 years, according to the United Nations Population Fund. From 2.52 billion people in 1950, it has mushroomed to 5.72 billion in mid-1995, 4.55 billion of whom live in less developed regions. Even though the rate is slowing, the global population is still growing by close to 90 million a year, and plausible estimates predict 6.2 billion people by the year 2000 and 9.8 billion by 2050.

Poverty is linked to rapid population growth both nationally and internationally. The poorest areas of the world - Africa, South Asia and Western Asia - have the highest population growth rates (2.8, 2.1 and 2.4 per cent, respectively), above the average rate (1.8 per cent) for less developed regions as a whole.

Fertility: Compromising the future? Of the roughly 90 million new people on earth in 1995, 85 million were born in countries least able to support them. The high fertility of the poor, due in part to insufficient access to family planning services, compounds the difficulty of fulfilling even the most basic needs, such as healthcare, nutrition and education, to help them emerge from poverty.

Regions with the highest prevalence of poverty record substantially higher mortality rates than other regions, and fertility levels in those regions have fallen less; in sub-Saharan Africa, declines in fertility have scarcely begun.

There is growing fear that the combined effects of poverty, population growth, social and economic inequality and wasteful consumption patterns will pose a serious threat, both to the resource pool and to the health of present and future generations.

Poverty and Health

Poverty - the world's leading cause of death: "Poverty is the world's deadliest disease", according to the World Health Organization's recently published World Health Report 1995 - Bridging the Gaps.

The growing economic gap is literally "a matter of life and death" for millions who pay the price of inequity with their lives, said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Hiroshi Nakajima, in launching the Report. Contrary to overall trends, in certain developing countries life expectancy is actually shrinking, as the poorest die for want of safe water, adequate sanitation and basic health care.

Disease patterns and mortality rates tell a sad story. For example, 40 per cent of deaths worldwide are due to communicable diseases, 99 per cent of which occur in the third world, and to maternal, perinatal and neonatal causes, from which richer countries are almost immune.

Poverty and unemployment are both the cause and the effect of ill health, the Report contends, creating a vicious circle in which poor health inhibits an individual's ability to work, thus reducing earning capacity and deepening poverty. Poverty is also an underlying cause of disability and starvation, and a major contributor to mental illness, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse.

Developed countries are also affected. The growing poverty and deprivation of a "new underclass" in many European and North American cities brought with it a resurgence in infectious diseases during the 1990s. In France alone, infectious, parasitic and respiratory diseases caused more than 24,000 deaths in 1990, twice the number recorded in 1980, WHO reports, while in New York City during the period 1987-1991, poverty, social deprivation and AIDs increased the risk factor for contraction of tuberculosis by 300 per cent for under-15-year- olds, especially blacks.

Without concerted global action to eradicate poverty, said the World Health Organization, this "biggest single underlying cause of death, disease and suffering worldwide" could cause many of the great achievements in health in recent decades to be "thrown into reverse".

Poverty and the Environment

Environmental degradation and poverty are inextricably intertwined, resulting in a vicious cycle in which poverty causes environmental stress and, in turn, perpetuates more poverty, spreading it around the globe.

THE FACTS: Human activities are causing unprecedented environmental deterioration, according to United Nations figures:

  • Every second more than 200 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted, contributing to global warming, while an estimated 1 billion people worldwide breathe polluted air that does not meet minimum standards set by WHO;
  • Every second some 750 tons of topsoil are lost;
  • Each day some 47,000 hectares of forest are destroyed, 346,000 hectares of land are turned to desert. Half the deforestation caused by human activities has occurred in the last 20 years;
  • Each day an estimated 100 to 300 species become extinct.

Poverty puts pressure on people and nations, especially in the developing world, to engage in unsustainable and ecologically damaging practices. The poor, in an effort to survive, and impoverished nations, in an equally pressing attempt to service their debts, turn to exploitation of their own natural resources.

EMERGENCIES: There is widespread agreement that the industrialized nations are responsible for most of the world's pollution - that is, the "loud emergencies", such as global warming and depletion of the earth's ozone layer.

But it is the "silent emergencies" such as soil erosion and polluted drinking water - that directly affect those living in extreme poverty. Lacking the resources to avoid degrading their environment, their struggle for daily survival often leaves no choice. What is primarily at risk for them is less their environment than life itself.

THE CAUSES: Many of the causes of environmental degradation are closely linked to poverty. Not only are the poor often forced to exploit the environment owing to limited choices of food and fuel, but at the other end of the spectrum, the rich frequently exploit the resources of the poor as well.

Unequal land distribution: Not so much a shortage of land as its unequal distribution forces the poor to exploit marginal environments. Ownership of most agricultural land, especially in developing countries, is concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged minority, which uses it for export crops. Forced to farm more fragile land, such as steep hillsides or virgin rain forests, the poor often unavoidably add to environmental degradation.

Terms of trade: Export earnings for most of the world's poorest countries depend on tropical agricultural products that are vulnerable to fluctuating or declining terms of trade. Expanding exports often exacts a domestic price in terms of environmental damage and exacerbated poverty.

Excessive resource consumption: Irresponsible use of wealth and power are largely responsible for profligate resource- consumption patterns, which are heavily skewed in favour of industrialized countries - although less than 25 per cent of the world's population live in those countries.

Environmentally blind economics: Traditional economic instru- ments used to calculate the gross national product (GNP) and measure market- place "successes" have no environmental compon-ent. As a result, they overstate progress while simultaneously generating environmentally destructive policies.

THE EFFECTS: The long-term results of short-term exploitation are devastating, often increasing rather than alleviating poverty.

Here are a few examples:

Deforestation: Clearing forests to increase food production in poor tropical countries often has the opposite result. For example, only 2 per cent of Haiti's tropical forests are intact today, yet agricultural production has actually dropped 15 per cent in the last decade. In Africa, the map of absolute poverty coincides with areas of deforestation which triggers other environmental problems, such as soil erosion, water loss and eventually desertification, exhausting the natural resources upon which impoverished populations depend.

Declining fish stocks: The poor are disproportionately affected by the decline in world fish stocks, which provide them with 40 per cent of their dietary protein. From 1950 to 1990 the fish catch increased fivefold, supported by industrialized countries that subsidized fishing companies and encouraged them to overfish new seas, often off the coasts of developing countries. Many countries have realized the damage done and agreed on remedial measures under a 1995 United Nations-brokered fisheries agreement, but the loss will take years to overcome.

Pollution and hazardous wastes: The damage to the environment and populations from pollution and the dumping of hazardous wastes is already evident. For example, in the Arctic, home to many indigenous populations, disproportionately high levels of toxic contaminants, generated primarily in industrial countries, poison the air and the food chain, depleting the food supply and destroying the health of these impoverished people. At the same time, some industrialized countries have shipped their hazardous wastes to poorer countries with weak or non-existent standards for human and environmental protection.

Global warming: Unsustainable production and consumption patterns, in addition to depleting natural resources and increasing environmental pollution, also create other problems, such as global warming and depletion of the earth's ozone layer, which jeopardize the ecological balance of the planet. The environmental consequences of this situation reinforce social inequities and poverty.

Unsustainable losses: In the long term, however, environmental losses are reflected in balance sheets, as economies, those of developing and developed countries alike, feel the economic impact of environmental degradation when their agricultural yields decline, their fish catches fall and the costs begin to mount for cleaning up their toxic wastes, providing health care and alleviating hunger. Everywhere this falling productivity reduces living standards, creating more poverty.

The Legacy of the "Earth Summit": Twenty years after Stockholm's 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, that first link between poverty and sustainable development became the basis for a sweeping series of affirmations.

In 1992 the 178 Member States represented at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil called for an end to poverty, and recommended that all nations move to attack the problem in country-specific ways.

Agenda 21, the Earth Summit's blueprint for development into the twenty-first century, calls on Governments to "enable the poor to achieve sustainable livelihoods" through the establishment of country-specific programmes to tackle poverty, in tandem with international efforts.

Alleviating poverty by eliminating unsustainable environmental practices will mean a change in awareness, as well as a change in laws and lifestyles, especially in industrialized countries.

Conservation: Governments need to introduce policies on the allocation and use of natural resources so that people living in poverty are both protected and empowered.

"Greening the market-place": National accounting procedures must incorporate in their credit columns a place for natural resource protection - and in their debit columns for environmental degradation (e.g., loss of topsoil through erosion, ruin of forests through extensive logging, depletion of the ozone layer from emissions).

Penalties: Many economists and environmentalists propose that environmentally harmful practices be penalized and responsible actions be rewarded through economic instruments, such as taxes, subsidies, user fees, charges, tradable permits and deposit-refund systems, based on a "polluter pays" principle.

Incentives: Systems that value the abundant natural capital that exists mainly in developing countries could enrich their economic standing and give all citizens economic incentives to conserve their environments.

Participation: Individuals, as well as local or community groups such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), can make a difference in the lives of the poor. Input at the local level - such as India's Chipko movement, which prevented the destruction of large forest areas in the Himalayas from commercial exploitation through non-violent resistance - is essential in creating policies more sensitive to people's needs and to the ecological preservation of countries.

THE FUTURE: For a sustainable future freed from poverty, the most important step to help protect natural resources is to give people from all segments of society a voice in governance, so that those affected by environmental degradation - both the rich and the poor - acquire a means to influence the course of action.

Poverty and Education

Education is an essential component in the eradication of poverty. No lasting progress against poverty can be made if it is denied a central place in development efforts. While education has become far more accessible in all parts of the world, it is still far from available for all, as statistics show:

Illiteracy: There are 905 million illiterate adults worldwide. Despite all efforts, they may still number as many as 869.4 million by the end of the century. Seventy per cent of all illiterate people live in only nine countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. While there is an overall decline in the illiteracy rate, several countries have registered a rise in the number of illiterate adults because of population growth. Moreover, the illiteracy rate among the young is higher than among adults.

Lack of schooling: Today, 130 million eligible children do not go to school, and their number may grow to 144 million by the turn of the century. Of those who do enrol, at least one third do not finish school for a variety of socio-economic reasons.

Gender gap: The situation is particularly acute for girls and women. Twenty-nine per cent of all adult women are illiterate, and 77.5 million of the out-of-school children are girls. The highest female-male literacy disparities are found in sub-Saharan Africa, in Southern Asia and in some Arab States.

Making education relevant: To combat poverty effectively, it is not enough that the illiterate be taught to read. Equally important is what they read, what they learn and how this learning can be put to effective practical use to improve their everyday lives. Education must be relevant to the "real world".

One such example is the movement towards "ecoliteracy", which offers an ecological framework for educational reform. Its starting point is the recognition that, as the twentieth century draws to a close, scarcities of resources and environmental degradation, com-bined with rapidly expanding populations and the spread of poverty, are putting the survival of humanity and of the planet in jeopardy.

Being ecologically literate means understanding the basic principles ofecological communities - interdependence, flexibility, diversity, partnership, interdependence - and using those principles to create sustainable human communities.

Increasing productivity through education: There is ample evidence that an educated population is a richer population, better equipped to face the future. Numerous studies verify the link between education and improved production. Keeping up with modern tech-nology, which is now such a crucial part of the global economy, also requires skilled and educated workers.

Today, countries such as the Republic of Korea and Malaysia are reaping the benefits of previous heavy investments in raising the overall educational level of their workforces. Countries that do not follow suit risk falling behind.

Educational programmes aimed at reducing poverty and increasing productivity must concentrate on those areas where education has maximum impact:

  • Encouraging access to quality education for girls and women;
  • Improving the quality of education through teacher training programmes and curriculum development;
  • Seeking out and promoting innovative projects that show how others provide education and literacy training for their communities and marginalized groups, such as street children and cultural minorities;
  • Reforming secondary, technical and higher education to make it more relevant in a world beset by environmental degradation, swelling populations, AIDS, drugs and unemployment;
  • Working more closely with a broader range of partners, such as non-governmental organizations, professional bodies, the private sector and the media.

Training to match the trends: The technology- and competition-driven phenomenon of jobless growth has produced counter-intuitive trends: for example, despite news from the economic front that growth is back, world trade increasing and profits climbing, unemployment is spreading apace, bringing with it a rising tide of poverty.

Training has often been touted as the most effective protection against unemployment. But in order for training to be translated into more jobs and less poverty, according to a recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), at least two conditions must be met: training must be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of the individual and of the economy, and its beneficial effects - especially on wages - must not be wiped out by the deregulation of the labour market.

The ILO is proposing a new "more relevant, effective and efficient" kind of training which stresses three priority goals:

Reusable skills: Increasing a worker's long-term employability by developing his or her ability to adjust to change, to interact and to solve problems and to learn new jobs more quickly;

Certified apprenticeships: Counteracting the alarmingly high tide of youth unemployment by improving the transition from the school to the work environment;

Lifelong "re-skilling": Reducing the cost of rapid technological and structural changes to both individuals and society by introducing a process of recurrent, lifelong education and training, or "re- skilling".

Although education alone cannot guarantee people economic and social well-being, it does empower each individual through its effects on attitudes, aspirations, knowledge and skills.

Simultaneously, through its impact on population dynamics and on social, cultural, economic and political life, education helps improve the quality of life, creating or reinforcing the conditions needed to reduce the incidence of poverty in our world.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information * DPI/1783/POV - February 1996

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