Global poverty is a hot topic right now. But anyone serious about ending it needs to understand the true causes, argues Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva.
From rock singer Bob Geldof to UK politician Gordon Brown, the world suddenly seems to be full of high-profile people with their own plans to end poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, however, is not a simply a do-gooder but one of the world’s leading economists, head of the Earth Institute and in charge of a UN panel set up to promote rapid development. So when he launched his book The End of Poverty, people everywhere took notice. Time magazine even made it into a cover story.
But, there is a problem with Sachs’ how-to-end poverty prescriptions. He simply doesn’t understand where poverty comes from. He seems to view it as the original sin. “A few generations ago, almost everybody was poor,” he writes, then adding: “The Industrial Revolution led to new riches, but much of the world was left far behind.”
This is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who have been “left behind”; they are the ones who have been robbed. The wealth accumulated by Europe and North America are largely based on riches taken from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Without the destruction of India’s rich textile industry, without the takeover of the spice trade, without the genocide of the native American tribes, without African slavery, the Industrial Revolution would not have resulted in new riches for Europe or North America. It was this violent takeover of Third World resources and markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the South.
Two of the great economic myths of our time allow people to deny this intimate link, and spread misconceptions about what poverty is.
First, the destruction of nature and of people’s ability to look after themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological decline that it gave rise to in the first place. This is the message at the heart of Sachs’ analysis.
The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then it doesn’t contribute to GDP, and therefore does not contribute towards “growth”.
People are perceived as “poor” if they eat food they have grown rather than commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.
Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life—when measured in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of meaning in people’s lives . Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those “left behind”.
This false distinction between the factors that create affluence and those that create poverty is at the core of Sachs’ analysis. And because of this, his prescriptions will aggravate and deepen poverty instead of ending it. Modern concepts of economic development, which Sachs sees as the “cure” for poverty, have been in place for only a tiny portion of human history. For centuries, the principles of sustenance allowed societies all over the planet to survive and even thrive. Limits in nature were respected in these societies and guided the limits of human consumption. When society’s relationship with nature is based on sustenance, nature exists as a form of common wealth. It is redefined as a “resource” only when profit becomes the organizing principle of society and sets off a financial imperative for the development and destruction of these resources for the market.