Poverty, Population, Pollution

By Sadik, Nafis | UNESCO Courier, January 1992 | Go to article overview
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Poverty, Population, Pollution


Sadik, Nafis, UNESCO Courier


THE elimination of poverty is first and foremost a moral imperative; but it is essential for the protection of the global environmental and for the health of the global economy. On all these grounds, we can no longer tolerate a situation in which one in five human beings--a total of 1 billion people--lives in absolute poverty.

Protection of the environment is a requirement for ending poverty--a ruined and plundered resource base could not support our current and future numbers--and slower, more balanced population growth is both a precondition for, and an outcome of, finding solutions to the twin problems of the environment and poverty.

In the past, economic development was seen as the solution to poverty, and demographic transition (see box page 17) as the eventual solution to population growth. Some damage to the environment was accepted as a necessary, but only marginally important, cost of development. These assumptions are no longer justified.

In many cases development has not only failed to eliminate poverty but has actually increased it, with deadly effects on population growth and environmental damage. For when development efforts are ineffective, they disrupt existing social and economic systems without providing compensating benefits. Even when development is effective it vastly increases human sources of pollution and environmental destruction. The industrial technology in use in most of the world was developed without thought for its environmental effects.

An unwanted side-effect of incomplete development has been to encourage rapid population growth. Mortality has fallen and life expectancy has risen, but there has been much less effect on birth rates. Increasing income and improving child survival leads in the first place to larger families. Only when development programmes include a family-planning element does family size fall significantly.

Another unintended side-effect of incomplete development has been massive and sustained urban growth. Classic development theory relies on the city as the engine of economic growth and therefore encourages urbanization. However, no one foresaw rates of urban growth of between 4 and 7 percent such as are being seen now in many developing countries where urban growth has spiralled beyond control.

The crisis is produced as much by numbers and concentrations as by technologies and structures. This is a peculiarly difficult dilemma. If development is simply the replication of world experience to date, it condemns the environment, and therefore itself.

The keys

to modern development

Education, health care and balanced population growth, with special attention to the status of women, are the keys to modern development. They also form a basis for the elimination of poverty and protection of the environment.

Developing countries' own resources of food and raw materials-- and above all their human resources--are sufficient for balanced development, if they are exploited in a thoughtful way rather than for short-term gain. The aim of all who are committed to development must be to work towards the marriage of public policy with private interest and a full sense of community with respect for human rights and dignity.

There are many reasons why so many people are and remain so poor. One is the sheer scale of the problem; the poor are the fastest-growing segment of the population in any country and in the world as a whole. Another reason is that the poor are trapped in a vicious cycle where poverty, lack of education, lack of earning power, poor nutrition and poor health feed on each other. However the main reason for continuing, large-scale poverty is quite simple--the lack of a concerted will, nationally or internationally, to do something about it. Many promises have been made, but few have been kept. Many development theorists have pointed out that poverty can kill us all, but they have not been heeded.

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