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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 1: Economy and society: development issues
close this folderPoverty, vulnerability, and rural development
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe nature of poverty
View the documentRural poverty and development in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentAspects of economy and society in SS Africa
View the documentVulnerability
View the documentPoverty and economic reform
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences


The vulnerability of the poor, as discussed in the introductory section on poverty, is a vulnerability to stress, including extremes of temperature and rainfall, general financial shortage, minor but especially persistent illness, family bereavements, which may be sudden but are often not unexpected, harvests below par but not severely deficient, damage to or deterioration of assets. It is also a vulnerability to shock, including war, civil war, riot, unexpected death, especially of a valued family mentor or earner, accidents involving severe or permanent injury, epidemic disease, not just amongst human beings but also amongst animals and plants, fire, drought with famine, flood, earthquake, landslides, volcanic eruption, bankruptcy, market collapse, sudden change in interest or exchange rates (poor people without savings or the need to travel across a border can still be affected by, for example, the consequent loss of a job), and changes in prices and wages (including hyperinflation).

Except in the poorest nations where welfare funding is totally inadequate, the worst effects of stress may be anticipated and at least some relief may be offered. In some cases international welfare may be available. Sudden shocks, however, often arrive without any or with very little national or household provision. A succession of climatically stressful years may, for example, be followed by the shock of severe drought, when the only recourse left is to migrate elsewhere more in the hope of relief than in the expectation of it. Even where national or international aid may be made available, it may be misdirected, opposed by those who see it as a threat to their interests, mismanaged, or arrive too late. Stress may also be offset by tradeoffs, particularly in the case where short-term adverse pressures are reduced by long-term payments: so future income expectations may be traded against immediate financial demands, or the environment may be subject to heavier, even damaging, demands in order to achieve a survival income (it may also be damaged to earn wealth, but the argument here is that part of the process of environmental damage and sustainability may be seen as a strategy for short-term survival). Unfortunately, environmental degradation may reduce the prospects for future livelihoods (Pearce, Barbier, and Markandya 1990: 13-14), especially where, as in the poorest countries, innovation in resource use and environmental management is limited. A sustainable development path occurs "only if the ecological boundary is shifted" by the application of appropriate technology (Pearce and Markandya 1989: 44). There can also be a trade-off with development, where investment has to be set aside and savings used for current expenditure. Finally, politically there can be a trade-off of the poor versus the rich, a trade-off in which the rich can be taxed or the poor can be further deprived in the interests of the other group.

Sustainability is not just about maintaining an economy or a given social condition, but about coping with stress and insuring against shock. To some extent the survival process of combining several activities and resources may offer some protection against stress and against the smaller shocks. However, it can rarely cope with the more severe shocks to which SS Africa is subject and which can overwhelm the more vulnerable communities whose range of strategies may be very limited. Some protection against future stress or shock may be achieved amongst the African poor by, for example, having large numbers of chidren, being part of an extended family, or using varied resources and storing whatever can be stored.

Shocks and disasters at the national instead of the family level need a different approach. In the richer capitalist nations people buy insurance. We have the World Bank, why not its parallel - a World Insurance Corporation that will operate at national and community levels? Of course there are nations that will not be able to afford a full subscription, but subscriptions to many of the international agencies are graded according to means and there is no reason why in this case it could not be similar and why insurance cover could not operate as of right. That still leaves the almost totally unexpected shocks, which may be regarded as unpredictable or "acts of God." But in these cases the richer nations and the relief agencies have normally attempted to provide aid and relief. It should not be beyond our global actuarial wit to widen the basis of cover and to provide funding and physical assistance on an organized instead of on an ad hoc basis as a kind of charity.