Vulnerable people can be agents of change, not mere recipients of assistance
The severe impact of global warming and technical solutions to it have always grabbed the media’s attention. Unfortunately, the socio-economic challenges of climate change that expose marginalised people to greater vulnerabilities and create conflicts and weaken macroeconomic performance seldom make headlines. The technocratic fixes, important as they are, are not enough to address the vulnerability of the poor in an era of increasing climate change challenges.
One daunting challenge for the Himalayan region in addressing poverty and vulnerability is the unequal access to resources between communities and within communities. In his recent book, The price of inequality, Joseph Stiglitz, formerly with the World Bank, reminds us that the Great Depression of the US was preceded by a steady increase in social inequality. The Himalayan areas must try to avoid such a situation. Inequality leads to a less productive economy. Stiglitz also said that the greater the disparity of wealth among people, the more reluctant the wealthy are to spend money for the common good.
Inequality, therefore, fuels an exclusion mechanism that the powerful manipulate to the detriment of the marginalised. We need to find ways to overcome inequality so that people can improve their livelihoods and enhance their well-being. We also need to find ways to overcome inequality so that our economies can grow more sustainably.
One of the clearest examples of unequal access to resources and of lack of power is found in the position of women in the Himalayan communities. Women are vulnerable and have unequal access to resources and power, but let us not forget that they will be the ones in the front line of any climate change adaptation or changes in mountain areas.
With more and more men in many poor households migrating for better income, feminisation of the labour force in many Himalayan nations will become even more pronounced. We, therefore, need to encourage and empower women to generate ideas and direct changes required for a sustainable future.
Another aspect that has gone unreported until recently is the threat to the rich biodiversity in the Himalayan region. The role of biodiversity in rural livelihood is not always considered an important factor in many developmental schemes. In the face of climate change, rural communities need assurance of the future functioning and sustainability of their traditional livelihoods and the ecosystem services they have managed for generations. Development initiatives must address this concern.
However, it has been found that some of our developmental activities are not always compatible with the protection of this diversity. Let us emphasise a new and novel process of enquiry that recognises the vulnerable people as knowledge holders, as change agents and as co-creators of innovation and not mere recipients of our technical assistance, loans and grants.
Some communities are already adapting and building resilience for the modern world in front of them. Some of the water management practices of local communities, for example, are extremely effective, creative and innovative, yet we have forgotten them. Maybe it is time to look back at our traditional systems and see how they can be used in future.
If the poor, the powerless, the marginalised communities and the women are to be valued as equal partners for building the resilience of the Himalayan region and, therefore, of the world, we need to have the courage to campaign for a new political process of participatory democracy that will promote multi-active partnership; that will enable wider ownership of decisions, processes and projects, and of accountability that will enable all partners to hold institutions, professionals, policy-makers and civil servants answerable to local communities for their acts of ommission and commission.
Phrang Roy is the chairperson of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society in Shillong. This article is excerpted from his speech at the International Conference on Poverty and Vulnerability in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, at ICMOD in Nepal on December 1, 2013
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