Towards a global anti-poverty convention

Published: Tuesday 31 August 1993

ONE OF Bangladesh's leading environmental NGOs, the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), has taken the lead in rectifying a major lacuna in the Rio agenda. Dealing with poverty should have been the first item on the global agenda in Rio, but issues such as global warming and biodiversity, supported by the worldwide media and NGO hype around them, diverted the attention of world leaders away from the central issue of our times.

At a meeting that brought together environmentalists from all over the world, BCAS called for a worldwide campaign for a convention on poverty, just as there have been international treaties to prevent global warming and damage to the ozone layer and for the conservation of biodiversity. Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, as the current head of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), rightly reminded the conference that a large proportion of the world's poor, estimated to be about one billion, live in the countries of South Asia. The proposed worldwide NGO campaign will aim at getting the UN general assembly to pass a resolution setting up a negotiating process for a global anti-poverty convention.

BCAS will now constitute a group of experts to see what the proposed poverty convention should contain and how it will relate to other conventions. As it will take up to 10 years to finalise such a convention, the group should also explore how the already agreed environmental conventions can be used for anti-poverty programmes.

As compared to the early 1980s, it is now widely recognised that there is a deep link between rural poverty and environmental degradation. In fact, a large proportion of the global poor today live in some of the worst ecologically degraded regions of the world -- ranging from the Andes mountains of South America to the Sahelian region of Africa and the drought and flood-prone regions of the Indian subcontinent. The proposed convention to combat desertification, which is currently being negotiated, should, in fact, take into account the conclusions reached in Dhaka.

It is quite possible to develop a convention that takes a very technocratic approach to the subject of desertification. But millions of dollars spent in the Sahel during the 1980s to regenerate a green cover have largely been a waste. On the other hand, a Maharashtra-style employment guarantee programme that first focusses on people and their needs, rather than on things like trees and grasses, could go a long way in meeting urgent human needs -- for example, by reducing labour migration out of the villages -- and also play a critical role in regenerating the environment. Since payments to the poor and unemployed in Maharashtra are not given out as dole, but as wages for work, the labour power of the poor, so mobilised, could be used to undertake massive environmental regeneration programmes.

Almost all such programmes, ranging from soil and water conservation to afforestation and grasslands development, are extremely labour intensive. Even in the employment guarantee scheme of Maharashtra, there has been a shift away from the activities undertaken in its early phases in the 1970s -- namely, road building and other construction activities -- to environmental regeneration programmes in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the environmental regeneration results in Maharashtra have not been very good because the state government has made almost no effort to link this massive labour mobilisation with changes in legal systems to empower villagers to determine the use of the local land, water and vegetative resources. Where local environmental activists have worked hard to bring the two elements of 'employment guarantee' and 'environmental self-determination' together, land degradation has been reversed, the village environment has bloomed and in the process, new sustainable livelihoods and incomes have been generated.

There are numerous reasons to argue that such national programmes should also be supported internationally. Western environmentalists repeatedly argue that the ecological costs of current actions are borne by future generations. But, for Southern environmentalists, even more pressing is the fact that the ecological costs of current actions are borne largely by the current generation of the world's poor. As any market economist would admit, these costs are being externalised by the world's rich. In an increasingly globalised economy, shouldn't, therefore, all the world's rich -- both in the North and the South -- be taxed, not as a matter of aid and charity, but as a global obligation to put a floor to poverty? There is no global shortage of foodgrains or money to do so. There is a shortage of entitlements and that is precisely what a worldwide employment guarantee programme on the lines of that in Maharashtra would provide.

Our rough calculations show that not more than $20-30 billion would be needed to fund such a programme worldwide. This money should, in fact, be transferred to the poor by the rich as a matter of the former's right, living as we do in a global market. Calculations made by the Centre for Science and Environment in 1990 had shown that the developing world -- because of the low consumption levels of its poor people -- is entitled to receive at least $30 billion a year for the atmospheric space that it provides to the rich world to emit carbon dioxide. Using a higher figure for the ecological costs of carbon dioxide pollution, the World Bank has recently put the figure nearer $70 billion a year.

Similarly, rainforests in the South provide major global environmental services. If even a nominal rent of $40 per hectare per year was paid for these rainforest services, the figure would run into billions of dollars. The world's energy and automobile industry should be forced to make these payments through appropriate taxes and duties. In addition, there is the liability of the rich as a result of damages to the ozone layer. And, as many tribal anthropologists point out, the rich owe the poor royalties for their biological knowledge that has transformed the food and pharmaceutical sectors of the world economy. The sum needed by the poor for a worldwide employment guarantee and environmental regeneration programme is a pittance compared to these amounts.

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