Skip to main content.

Poverty Alleviation through Sustainable Development

Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg

( Article Type: Opinion )

Looking after the environment and looking after destitute people go hand in hand – a point that the idea of sustainable development is meant to convey.


What will help the poor?

Not presuming to speak on behalf of ‘poor’ people, comments here are restricted to the links between poverty alleviation and environmental care. My aim is to illustrate the folly of pitting these two concerns against each other.

CLICK HERE for data from South Africa's 2013 Human Development Index 


1. Alleviating poverty through environmental protection

The poorer we are, the harder environmental issues hit us. Desperate for employment, poor people suffer the most unhealthy work environments. Without much choice as to where to live, they are more exposed to disasters such as floods and fire, and to toxic dumps, and polluted air and water. As their quality of life declines and their health deteriorates, these environmental issues render them even less able to make a living.

Land degradation and the loss of biodiversity affect poor people most, as they often depend directly on natural resources (for firewood, food and building material). When environmental degradation destroys opportunities for development in one area, those who have the financial means to do so can still move on to greener pastures. Being poor means having nowhere better to go.

It is thus in the interest of poor people that laws protecting environmental quality and safety are enforced, and that they have access to the law when their right to a healthy environment is violated. The common natural resources on which rural people depend should be protected by laws for sustainable use. Far from being ‘anti-development’, environmental policies can actually be used to protect the health and livelihoods of poor people, and increase their political and economic power.


2. Strengthening livelihood strategies and increasing options

Those with few livelihood options often feel forced to exhaust even the few resources to which they do have access. Examples include overgrazing the land, hunting out the wildlife around ever-growing settlements, collecting muti plants to sell until none are left. This creates vicious cycles. When people can no longer survive on depleted land, they move into shacks in towns and cities, where the chances of a better life are also bleak.

Caring for natural resources so that they can be used indefinitely (sustainably) is an important way of increasing people’s livelihood options. Care means protection and restoration. If we protect the soil and increase its fertility, remove alien invasive plants and re-establish indigenous vegetation, we thus help people to make a living off the land – through farming, crafts and tourism – for generations to come. By protecting estuaries, where many marine species breed, we protect people’s ability to earn a living from the sea – sustainably. Renewing urban landscapes can help people grow food at home, and work and relax in safe and pleasant surroundings – indefinitely.

A livelihoods-centred perspective informed the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP puts people first, not profits. This is not the case with export-led and growth-oriented economic strategies, especially when these fail to take care of the ecosystems on which livelihoods are based. Current economics identify growth per capita as development, ignoring the way in which growth often depletes natural and social capital in order to produce money capital.

For the poor, boosting livelihood strategies and options makes a greater difference than the profits of economic growth, which by and large fail to trickle down to them from the consumer class. Some growth strategies can actually harm poor people. The livelihoods of millions of people around the world are threatened by exploitative ‘developments’ that benefit those who are already powerful. Logging, the extraction of minerals and oil, big dams – all displace people from where they had been able to derive a livelihood, onto barren lands and into city slums and menial labour. India’s Green Revolution was infamous for increasing the profits of a minority of richer farmers while devastating those people with more limited means or social status.


3. Providing basic incomes

An income does not always improve quality of life, but it can help. Economic growth in South Africa has failed to address the vast inequality in incomes, and government recently responded by increasing grants to the poorest 20% of households. Social grants are thus supplementing (or substituting for) the trickling down of wealth through economic growth. A Basic Income Grant has been recommended in order to alleviate hardship. This could also relieve the over-harvesting of natural resources in some areas.

Conservation of the natural environment is being increasingly recognised as a source of income for both government and communities. Nature-based tourism is now the fastest-growing industry in the world travel business. The departments of Water and SanitationEnvironmental Affairs, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recognised the successful marriage one could make between labour intensive conservation activities and poverty relief. The result was a series of environmental restoration programmes including Working for Water, Working for Wetlands and Land Care. Working for Water removes alien invasive trees; Working for Wetlands rehabilitates wetlands; and Land Care aims to prevent and reverse rural land degradation. Several conservation activities in the country’s National Parks also make use of poverty-relief funds. These initiatives all employ destitute people. As a solution to poverty, they unfortunately tend to lack sustainability, except where entrepreneurial skills and long-term opportunities are simultaneously developed.


4. Improving basic services

Providing basic services is a huge task, not only because of the apartheid backlog but also the rapidly growing population. Struggling to deliver, government seeks to hand over the responsibility through various forms of privatisation. But privatising common natural resources such as water and energy has proven to be to the disadvantage of the poor. Around the world, privatisation has pushed up costs of services, despite promises that it won’t. 

However, providing services to the millions of still disadvantaged South Africans can present government and service providers with a great opportunity. We could become a world leader in sustainable development if we built new infrastructure in a resource-light, pollution-light manner and invested in public transport; grey-water recycling; waterless sewage; low-energy housing… to name a few. Such innovations also create new job opportunities.


5. Creating meaningful jobs

There was a time when economic growth meant more jobs – when growth was built on mining and other labour-intensive industries. Increasingly, economic growth is generated by industries, which are not labour intensive, either because they are mechanised or because they require small numbers of highly skilled people to run them. Creating jobs by investing in industry is a capital-intensive process and industrial jobs grow at a slow rate – slower than populations and the numbers of unemployed. And, in a free-trade regime, businesses need to be competitive, and industrial developments cannot be competitive and job-intensive at the same time.

Government recommends self-employment in the informal sector. In the process, we also look towards the environment for employment opportunities. Indeed, conserving nature and places of natural and cultural significance does create jobs, either directly in conservation or indirectly but more extensively, through ecotourism. This is why we increasingly understand conservation to be a form of development. Jobs can also be created by ‘greener’ lifestyles (e.g. making durable shopping bags), greener production (such as producing renewable energy technology), better waste management (e.g. jobs in the recycling industry) and environmental restoration (e.g. alien-clearing contractors). These kinds of activities require both high- and low-skill work.

Protecting the environment can also lead to temporary job losses, for example when a polluting business is closed down. However, if that business starts a more sustainable enterprise, jobs will be recreated. Failing to look after the environment, on the other hand, leads to long-term job losses – for example, when a fishing industry collapses.


6. Economic reforms

Efforts to alleviate poverty will not be successful without a complete overhaul of the economic systems that have maintained poverty for so long. We are using outdated economic models that lead to the redundancy of people, and poverty thrives (see Topic ECONOMICS).

Campaigns to alleviate poverty often call for international assistance. However, the track record of donor aid suggests that it may benefit governments more than it benefits the poor. Donors can use aid to reinforce their assumed supremacy and create positions and markets for their own citizens; recipient governments have been known to expand their consumer class and secure their own power base, under the banner of poverty eradication.

A more equal relationship between nations would be fostered by facilitating fair trade. This means scrapping the trade barriers that rich countries have erected against imports from poorer countries, while they ask for the liberalisation of poorer countries’ markets. Economists estimate that reducing unfair trade barriers could allow southern countries to generate $130 billion a year, roughly three times the sum total of the official development aid assistance.


7. Alleviating affluence

Poor people need to consume more environmental resources. What are the implications for the Earth? Not good, if they were to consume at the same rate as the ‘consumer class’. The environmental footprint of a wealthy person is far greater than that of a poor person. Even when we multiply the number of poor, we still find that a mere 20% of the population – the wealthy – is responsible for the bulk of the world’s consumption and pollution.

The global environmental resources are finite and unequally divided. To obtain more resource rights for the low-consumers, the over-consumption of the affluent must be reduced. The idea is to have both convergence (of the consumption of the poor, towards a more sustaining livelihood) and contraction (of the consumption of the rich, towards more sustainable lifestyles).

In practice, this means choosing a development path that is both pro-environmental and pro-poor, and de-linking economic growth from an increase in resource use, and social progress from economic growth. For individuals, it means that as our incomes grow, we should find ways other than excessive consumption to fulfil our personal ambitions and social needs (see Topic Consumerism).

It is a matter of promoting both ecology and equity, proving the point with which we started out – that poverty alleviation and environmental care go hand in hand.


8. Acknowledging rights

Poverty is about a lack of power. Poverty alleviation should thus also address situations in which some people have few opportunities to exercise their rights. Rather than thinking of the poor as needy persons awaiting hand-outs, recognise their basic rights to common resources.

South Africa’s democracy brought equal rights, but not yet equal access. Historical inequalities remain largely untouched by current economic policy, including black empowerment strategies. Unemployment figures are higher among women, and womenheaded households are more likely to suffer from poverty.


9. Education and capacity-building

Education and training must help the unemployed, under-employed and youth at risk to move from being unskilled or redundant in one kind of economy to contribute productively to a new economy based on social justice and ecological sustainability. Equally important is capacity-building for government departments, which must deliver on poverty reduction and development. 




From an address by The UNDP Administrator, on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, 17 October 2003