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close this bookThe Courier N° 133 May-june 1992 - Dossier : Environment and Development - Country Reports - Côte d'Ivoire - Papua New Guinea (EC Courier, 1992)
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View the documentEnvironment, development and poverty- what ENDA thinks
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Environment, development and poverty- what ENDA thinks

by Philippe ENGELHARD & Taoufik Ben ABDALLAH

The people living below the bread line have increased in terms of absolute numbers (1.2 billion) and as a percentage (23%) of the total population over the past decade. Four fifths of them are in rural areas and heavily dependent on whatever natural resources - land, water, biomass and genetic resources- are available.

'Poverty' in many cases is a linguistic nicety filling gap in the concept of development which people are ever more reluctant to discuss, the fashion being more for adjustment and financial and economic rationalisation. It's an ill wind... When the idea of development loses its fascination, ultimately a question of common sense will occur - how, practically speaking, can we improve the daily life of the greatest number and reduce the distress of the pariahs and the excluded ?

The idea of growth may one day be updated, by way of reaction, by the feeling (because it is still only intuition) that the prime aim of proper growth is to | do away with poverty or at least the most flagrant injustice, poverty and moral and physical dereliction. And this would make way for a brave question about inverting the orthodox approach-how can reducing poverty in everyday life help trigger growth and development?

Ultimately there is no choice. A billion people or thereabouts are massed on the edge of the metropolises, lost to the modern economy and with no choice other than to organise their day-to-day survival by producing the goods they need and catering for their collective needs as best they can-in short, by creating another kind of urban system and another kind of economy. A new kind of growth is already with us, surreptitiously, and we need to know how to support it in such a way as to help develop the environment of the whole planet. But this emergent world should not blind us to the poorest and the most excluded of our number-starting with those in the countryside...

What we need to know is this: What relation maintains the campaign for poverty and the environment? How can we make the content of the concept of poverty more operational ? How does unequal international development worsen poverty in some parts of the world ?

Poverty, environment and population

The fact that some people get poorer no doubt has a lot to do with environmental deterioration and fast population growth-although the importance of the latter has probably sometimes been overestimated.

Ecological dysfunction is often rooted in demographic pressure, but cause and effect is not as automatic as it may seem.

In Africa at least, there is a tendency to see a causal relation between greater demographic growth, a deteriorating ecological environment and a decline in per capita agricultural output. But the reverse is worth serious consideration too. In some cases, it has been the rural exodus and the waning of traditional herding methods which have upset the physical environment and destroyed systems of production - and with no compensation either. Intelligent agricultural intensification (often involving agro-forestry) would require a bigger labour force and have the advantage of higher yields, better productivity and greater resistance to erosion from wind, water and drought.

Experience has shown that properly thought-out systems of production which best combine plants in space and time can both push up income' reduce input and offer decent defence against aridity. ENDA has been successful with some of these systems in Senegal with several hundred young farmers. But developing an original kind of agroforestry with the youngest is no reason for not helping the poorest and most excluded to prevent aridification and so we are working on this in parts of Senegal too, in the Thies area, for example, where we have helped the people to build small dams and other hydro-agricultural installations.

The infinite variety of attacks on the environment should never cloud two, possibly vital, ideas - first, that the environment is to be protected not as a museum, but as a complex system to be geared to productive, domestic, aesthetic and spiritual requirements and, second, that what we consider to be environmental degradation should be subjected to close inspection. Take the suggestion that half of the land in Africa is under threat of rapid and probably irreversible deterioration. What is this estimate actually worth? It would take data gathered in the field to tell and transparency here depends on the information from networks of NGOs and research workers and peasant movements being fluid-the only way to a proper exchange of experience and know-how. So we are working with groups and associations in both North and South to set up data networks of this kind.

In the past, low population density and culture-specific regulation has usually ensured some degree of ecological stability. For example, religious institutions once banned some fishing techniques and the most destructive sorts of machinery on the shores of Lake Aheme and Lake Toho in Benin, defining the boundaries of sacred places (where fishing was prohibited), which thus became protected areas. But now we have to devise new environmental regulations to reflect the population's strategies and the constraints of their survival. Economic interest and environmental interest often coincide, sometimes unexpectedly. A mixture of crops is an ecological advantage in itself and, if it is properly organised, it will improve yield and lower fertiliser and pesticide costs too. Combating aridification also involves a proper understanding of biodiversity and how to rehabilitate it.

Demographic pressure is a problem because there are more basic issues which have not been addressed-an alternative hypothesis which should be examined as a matter of urgency.

Socio-spatial disparities have been seriously affected by demographic pressure, with an ill-distributed increase in migratory movements towards the towns and various so-called privileged areas. It would be utopian to try to put a stop to the rural exodus now, of course. Never has such a thing been attempted with success. The only sensible course is to aim to slow it down-although, obviously, this means distributing public amenities better (and the only way of doing that is with an active, concerted policy of regional development), ensuring that country areas have the basic educational and public health infrastructure and encouraging a style of farming which pays.

And that, of course, means dropping aims which are more ideological than economic-such things as the principle of self sufficiency in food, a slogan which confuses ends and means, raised to the level of dogma. No-one denies that any region or country will want to feed itself, but the worst way of doing so is to go for self sufficiency regardless of economic or social cost (as the current rice situation in the Sahel so eloquently shows). What the target should be is prosperous farmers... (with self-sufficiency as a bonus).

It would be perfectly legitimate to try to discourage the consumption of food which is too expensive to import or produce locally, particularly given the tendency to underestimate the flexibility of eating habits. People may well want to eat rice, but when irrigated rice is three or four times the world price in some places, it is reasonable to wonder whether it might not be a good idea to wean them on to potatoes or sweet potatoes (which have at least six times the yield) instead. The least bad solution would be either to go to the world market and buy cereals which are very cheap and try to sell properly developed agricultural produce (offseason vegetables and tropical fruit, for example) on the external markets, or to eat things which are sufficiently cheap to, produce at home, or both. A strategic, revision of this sort, however, can only be entertained if there are investments to go with it and a huge effort is made to tell the people about it-a drive we are doing our best to encourage.

Towns will doubtless continue to grow fast (by 5-7% p.a.) and most people in the Third World will be urbanised in 10 years' time. Although a move to the town regulates the rate of reproduction (it is lower in urban areas) in the long run, the population will go on getting younger for some years to come, with all that this implies in terms of spending on transport, energy, education, housing, roads, drainage, water supplies and so on. It is now crucial to see just where people, and even young people, fit into political, social and economic life, as social peace and the future of the greater part of the planet depend on it.

It seems obvious that no solution will be viable unless the people themselves are involved in managing and planning the towns. Equally obviously, the popular urban economy is and will continue to be the biggest provider of jobs, goods and services for the vast majority of these people. First and foremost, the antipoverty campaign must find out how this economy can be supported without its creativity being sterilised. One of ENDA's warhorses over the past decade has been the management of the Third World's cities and the promotion of the popular economy, using a two-pronged strategy of backing up groups in the slums and providing proper information for decision-makers in various African countries in the Third World... and in the North.

Poverty and insecurity

Poverty has a great deal to do with insecurity and the non-availability of certain critical resources.

A meaningful grasp of development must incorporate the idea of security.

The idea of security has to be taken in its broadest sense, obviously, with all its social, political and economic connotations. One of the intellectual fashions of today is to attack the welfare state. It is by no means clear that there can be unlimited coverage of social risks and a modest degree of risk is probably one of the rules of the economic game. But it is equally clear that reducing social risk to acceptable proportions is an essential feature of well-being. Political security, which includes the possibility of groups and individuals living as they see fit and contributing to collective choices, is also a basic element.

The question is to fix the collective production threshold below which the minimum security and resources can no longer be assured-and it is a minimum which alters according to the society and its ecological and cultural make-up. There is nothing to prove that development has to be up to the level in the industrialised world to achieve it. The fact that there is only a small correlation between per capita GDP and the human development index strengthens our conviction here and gives us some justification in all we think and do.

The availability of some resources is a crucial aspect of security. But the rarity of others is often artificial and based on on nothing more than poor production and productivity.

When it comes to health and basic needs, this is obvious enough not to require lengthy explanation. The average African lives 15 km from a health post (often without even the minimum requirements) and has to get there as best he can. This is not security. It is insecurity as far as health is concerned and it is worsened, obviously, by the shortage of clean drinking water-something which affects half the population of the continent-and more than 80% of tropical disease is water-related. AIDS threatens millions of people in the long term, particularly in Africa. We have tried to start countering-it with reflexion and active prevention campaigns, but we and our partners can currently only scratch the surface of the enormous task before us.

The hazards of climate could also be considered as a barrier to any attempt at innovation-as involving too much risk. The minimax theorem shows that there is a degree of poverty at which the potential cost of innovation is more important than its advantages. And what is worse, hundreds of thousands of people are hit by war, tribal conflict and, more generally, insecurity of the very worst kind, threatening their bodies and their goods and chattels. So campaigning for democracy, and therefore campaigning to protect people first and foremost, and campaigning to put an end to the violence and arbitrary behaviour of some states should be a vital obligation for all national and international leaders. We, with our meagre resources, have always tried to provide front line assistance to refugees and others under particular threat. The Mauritanian refugees in Senegal are just one example.

The idea that some countries' poverty -which is initially apparent in a shortage of budget resources - has been considerably worsened by the colonial legacy and a tendency to rely on imported methods of organisation cannot be dismissed lightly. A large percentage of the community's assets is managed in unsuitable ways and exorbitant costs are the end result, leading to poverty when the so-called modern systems are at variance with the ability to cope with recurrent costs-or, quite simply, the management. That is not to say that what is new is wrong. What it means is that believing in new for new's sake leads to absurdity. New technology should not be espoused because it is new, but because it is the best answer in a given economic, social and cultural situation.

Insecurity of this sort is pointed up by certain so-called modernistic prejudices and a lack of attention and imagination.

Experience suggests that, from a strictly economic point of view, productivity can be improved even with labour intensive techniques. In other words, even if, for a series of social and economic reasons, a country or a group does go for labour-intensive technology, there is nothing to prevent it from boosting its productivity and it could do this by gearing research and development differently, for most research is only concerned with combinations of capital intensive techniques. What we are fighting for is an alternative kind of research -although, alas, with far fewer means than the job actually requires. Getting governments and opinion leaders to grasp the fact that efficiency does not necessarily mean going for what is most modern or most recent is still a constant concern.

What is wrong with thinking that local know-how could be put to better use ? In their way, the peasants who have selected plants over the centuries have been acting as informal research. Popular technical knowledge can be of immense benefit to society-provided, of course, it does not get bogged down in a technical or economic way of thinking which only sees progress in the narrow terms of historical experiences, which can in all probability not be generalised. That is not to say that all advanced technology has to be dropped. But it has to be combined with older technology discerningly, with the idea that boosting productivity in production is not an end in itself. The main end should be to improve the daily living conditions of the greatest number and to reduce the unpleasantness of domestic and productive tasks.

A realistic analysis of the living conditions of the poorest sections of the population and proper attention to the way they themselves see their daily environment and any practical improvements which could rapidly be made for them would of course be another major source of progress. If these people are given the means of communication, information and participation, they can usually come up with the right answers to their problems themselves. We have plenty of examples of this popular know-how, sometimes in unexpected forms- for example in a working class area of Dakar where an ENDA team went to help (Grand Yof).

Poverty and international equality

Another cause of poverty (subjective and objective) is the unequal world distribution of wealth, knowledge and development.

All the middle classes of the world have a standard (Western) model of consumption. It is a factor of poverty and in any case a dead end as far as a large part of mankind is concerned.

The appearance of a standard model of consumption was inevitable and may, after all, be legitimate. The problem- that it works independently of the production and import potential of the less developed regions-is all the more acute, because of the mimicry which the model transmits to virtually every section of society. The result, obviously, is a series of psychological maladjustments which combine to give relative and sometimes absolute poverty among the people of the Third World. One of our priorities, in both our publications ('Vivre autrement') and the networks we help to run, is to trigger ways of life and social organisation which cost the community less.

Given the incredible fluidity of the media in the North, these maladjustments will inevitably increase in the future. Once again, there is no question of stoking up the guilt complex of the countries in the North (which is also a source of ambiguous and demagogic behaviour). The idea is to find out whether a change in their life-style and communications might not be an answer to some worldscale imbalances which they have helped to bring about and, wittingly or unwittingly, to maintain.

- This does not mean that Third World societies (starting with those in Africa) are free of all responsibility. There is something paradoxical about the fact that the Third World movements which make the most powerful religious and/or political attacks on the West virtually never complain about the materialistic way of life of the industrialised nations. Gandhi was an exception.

One thing is fairly obvious. In the long run, the Western consumer model cannot be generalised. Indeed energy and pollution constraints alone put the idea entirely out of reach in the present state of our knowledge. Although the West has done some amazing energy saving, it still needs to set the example with ways of life which are less of a burden on the environment and more suitable for mankind as a whole. This would make its campaign to save the planet more credible to its partners in the South. It should in any case back the most credible alternative approaches to health, education, urban development, transport, energy, technology, communications and organisation and more.

The uneven distribution (or erratic management) of wealth leads to absolute poverty in some populations. The uneven distribution of the capacity for research and knowledge is a source of present and future unfairness of an extent unknown before.

The strategies for dealing with scarce resources have shifted and the political pattern they trigger has certainly been less brutal over the past 10 or 20 years- although recent events in the Middle East are there to remind us that the strategies used to control some scarce resources, starting with oil, have something to do with the upheavals in some parts of the world...

The way strategic raw materials are controlled obviously affects their price. Over a long period, of course, prices tend to adjust to the marginal cost, but a'long period' is often an abstraction and the price politicised. With more ordinary commodities like coffee and cocoa, it is the market price which obtains. But should this price be a sort of dogma which does away with the idea of fair pricing? It is an important indicator of the degree of rarity, of course, but it would be wrong to leave it to the unseeing market machinery to decide on the producers' income and the retail prices all by itself. It is not by chance that agriculture is subsidised (albeit with what may be debatable discernment) by most developed economies, starting with the USA, the EEC and Japan-which still buys rice from its ! farmers at seven times the world market rate!

Another source of perturbation-and new inequality perhaps-is already on the horizon. Mankind is unlikely to manage without cutting its emission of carbon monoxide and other pollutants responsible for the greenhouse effect in the near future. Regulation of this sort has some chance of leading to a global 'right to pollute', which would be defined annually and shared, and, if we are not careful, the growth potential of the poorest countries of the world will be compromised in the process.

In the fairly near future, a large number of countries in the South are going to see a biotechnological revolution involving increasing yields, production and productivity-innovations which will help food security, of course, but not without bringing major problems in their wake. On the one hand, there is a considerable risk of the right to use genes being privatised and excluding or generating dependence on the part of the user countries (which will have no choice in the matter). On the other, expanding production and the emergence of substitutes for a large number of staples (such as sugar, coffee and cocoa) cannot but marginalise many of the peasant populations of the Third World, with no possibility of compensation, as is already happening in the sugar industry in the Caribbean. And duties will be a heavier burden on the already meagre budgets of both states and peasants.

Lastly, if the anticipated massive reduction in tariff barriers actually comes to pass (which, mercifully, it is not bound to do), the risk of various farm-dominated economies being marginalised would be heightened. In the extreme scenario of generalised free trade, a good third of the countries with few or no product advantages (Niger, for example) would have no other choice than to rely upon international charity. The absolute effectiveness of comparative advantages would thus be apparent world-wide! Can half of mankind really be fed by the other half - which has no work and is therefore condemned to no more than survival? The inevitable result would be urban and then international migration, on a far greater scale than we know today, and there would be disastrous consequences, not least the abandonment of the cultivation of some plants (reducing biological diversity) and the disappearance of traditional know-how which could be extremely useful to mankind.

Researchers, NGOs and international development bodies should put priority on preparing the governments and people of the South -a major undertaking which cannot be embarked upon piecemeal. Powerful systems of reflexion, research and action must be set up, just as they are in Asia, and given efficient means of communication (electronic mail, for example). We, with our limited means, are involved in setting up networks to deal with such things as energy, desertification, biotechnology, biodiversity, climate and the international environment. We are concentrating on Africa in particular-no doubt the continent least informed and least equipped to handle these major problems, among which debt and structural adjustment are very much to the fore.

The existence of standard development models makes solving the poverty problem even more crucial-in which the cultural background is vital.

All too often, Third World cultures still think and reflect in a metalanguage or metaculture which is that of the West. This is not to say that the thinking is bound to generate sterility. Quite the contrary. The fertilisation of one culture by another is a virtually constant part of history (what about the Greek influence on Rome or the ancient Egyptian influence on Greece?). But fertilisation implies a proper marriage and not an unhappy, maybe even schizophrenic biculturalism which thrives on skin-deep modernity and fails to identify the underlying moral idea (individual responsibility) or the points on which it falls short itself. Although cultures must evolve (and not be preserved unchanged like animals in a zoo), it seems clear to us that any sudden reorganisation will make the populations more vulnerable by depriving them of a fundamental prop for their understanding and action. This attention to culture and the ecosystems around it is an important aspect of our thinking and action.

Modernism raised to the level of a rational belief has the fundamental notion that economic growth is the only way to leave poverty behind. No-one will deny that secular growth in the West has gradually done away with the biggest pockets of poverty. Western development has got a lot of things wrong, of course, despite its undeniable successes (a reasonable degree of fairness, great efficiency and great freedom). But there is nothing to prove that this form of growth is socially speaking the most efficient way of rapidly improving the quality of life of the greatest number and enabling those whom progress passes by to achieve a minimum of wellbeing.

Simplifying things a little, the countries of the South, or a fair number of them at least, are likely to be faced with the following paradox in the coming years. Either they will stimulate the most dynamic sectors of their economies (but transfers from rich to poor will be out of the question or affect the rich politically or financially) or they will put priority on erasing the pockets of poverty, but to the detriment of the growth of the whole.

The paradox is perhaps not as clear-cut as that, because the poor-who have yet to be identified-are not always as marginalised we in the West tend to imagine. They may be families of the popular economy, or peasant families which need proper support in terms of training and credit facilities. They may be genuinely excluded, of course, but efficient and sensitive help will enable them to make a better job of running their lives and catering for their basic needs. In other words, it must be realised that the process of growth does not have to be the privilege of the few. What it should be is an effort by the population as a whole, even the poor-and this is what we are trying to get across to the governments in the South and their funders in the North.

In conclusion, poverty occurs in many forms and at many levels. It has to be tackled at root in the districts and the villages and on the fringes of the cities and localities. It has to be tackled in international relations too. Information must be digested and improved and action geared to many fields. The cost of information does not always balance out its advantages, but it often takes far less than people imagine to provide those genuinely vital details on which decisions and action have to be based. So it is wise to identify the most sensitive points in what might be called the environmentin-security-poverty system - poverty being when people in an economic, social and environmental system are no longer in a position to cover the costs of their reproduction, which means the system has been upset from within or without, or both.

Ideally, the most significant poverty making processes and the reasons for the breakdown in reproduction should be detected. The situation should be under-stood from within, so that schemes and changes can be devised to repair or; replace the torn fabric. A basic fact of such understanding is that it is probably not possible to talk about the poor without listening to what they have to say, for if they are not listened to, there is always a danger of artificially grafting on ready-made, technocratic solutions. That is not to say that the planetary implications of poverty are to be ignored, but that they should be approached, as far as possible, through practical situations- the only situations which concern the people who live and die on this earth, after all.

The so-called standard development model postulates linearity (i.e. a succession of obligatory phases), major productivity and per capita production improvements as the only way to social progress and the idea that the costs of mounting inequality are offset by mounting per capita production. The economic bias of the standard model is highly debatable I and the idea that 'you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs' perhaps more so, because if too many eggs are broken, there will be no omelette in the end either. Tears in the social fabric ultimately hamper growth and the new idea is to reverse the process and hope that improving health and education and paying attention to the way of life and the environment will ultimately trigger a responsible growth process which cares about the everyday life of man and his environment.

Governments and international developments institutions are ill-placed to set up and speed up such a process. There is so much at stake that everyone on the planet is concerned. But in the absence of strong civil societies with close relations between them, there is a danger that sterile struggle, dogmatism and fanaticism will be perpetuated. Knowing, understanding, communicating, informing and backing up innovatory schemes is, ultimately, one of the only ways of changing the world order-or doing something about the unfair disorder which a good half of mankind is unable to support. In the end, this kind of effort could give a proper content to democracy -which is nothing more than respect for other people and the common good. And if that democracy is the end of history as recounted by Hegel, then it is a fine ending. But there is more ground to cover then he thought P.E. & T.B.A.