To end poverty we also need to ensure equality and sustainability | Erik Solheim
There's more bang for every development buck when reducing poverty also boosts gender equality, health and the environment
There seems to be strong political will to do what is needed to end poverty once and for all. But what, concretely, do we need to do? Many things, if we're going to do it right.
It is clearly not only a question of growth, although growth, of course, is essential. Through strong – and targeted – growth, China has been able to bring 600 million people out of poverty. Yet at the same time, economic growth is causing pollution and fuelling climate change, and its benefits are not always shared equally, leaving out women and other vulnerable groups.
Does this complicate matters? Perhaps, but it may actually be easier to try to do it all at once. There is more bang for every development buck when reducing poverty also improves health, environmental sustainability and gender equality. Examples abound.
Cash transfer schemes, for instance, can help poor people to buy food, secure housing or invest in livelihoods – whatever they believe their family most urgently needs. In Brazil, however, Bolsa Familia cash payments have a few strings attached. They require that families have their children vaccinated and enrolled in schools, and the cash is usually given to the woman in the family because they tend to know best how to use money for the benefit of the whole family. In this way, Bolsa Familia has empowered women to improve education and health while reducing the number of poor people.
Poverty reduction can also be green and fair. People often feel they have good reason to cut down rainforests – to provide a living for their families – but when offered an alternative, may be more than willing to protect the land. Costa Rica revolutionised conservation by providing cash payments for environmental services on the premise that those who maintain natural resources should be compensated for doing so. Forests now cover more than 50% of Costa Rica's land, compared with 21% in 1980. Through the UN, several other countries are working to replicate this success.
Agricultural reform can promote growth and equality. By building roads, establishing property rights, giving loans, and providing irrigation and better seeds, some governments – China's, for example – have targeted growth to benefit poor farmers, and in doing so have produced nationwide benefits. It's important to remember that around 70% of farmers in the world are women – often poor women in the countryside who rely on small patches of land. Today, many support programmes are still targeted at men, with women's work counted as domestic chores. The UN has estimated that bringing female farmers' yields to the level of those produced by men could reduce the number of hungry people by 100 million.
Microcredit programmes, properly designed, can have environmental as well as social advantages. Originally created for women and others who were excluded from most sources of loans, microcredit has helped to confirm the potential of women across the world, proving that they can be good entrepreneurs given the chance. In the mountains of Vietnam, a poverty reduction programme found that men were too reckless and ambitious with their investments, and demanded female leadership as a loan condition.
Solar Sister in rural South Africa has generated $46 for every $1 invested in solar power. This is especially important when we consider that 3 billion people still rely on wood or some other biomass for cooking. Aside from being time consuming, such practices can strip local areas of trees – and, most important, using these fuels indoors is bad for health.
We must learn from these examples. Balancing economic growth and equality with environmental sustainability is not only possible – it is essential. No country can reach its full potential without half of its workforce and creative talent. Gender equality in the workforce grows the economy by increasing productivity and creative capacity. By the same token, while we need to understand that developing countries will not sacrifice development for the environment, it is also crucial to remember that development comes to a stop if natural resources are exhausted, water polluted and soil degraded in the process.
No country has yet achieved environmental sustainability, but some countries are making progress. Brazil has reduced poverty and inequality while cutting deforestation by 80%. Ethiopia's growth has mainly benefited the poor, and the country aims to become a middle-income nation without increasing its carbon emissions.
Sustainability and equality are requirements for development. Getting three times the benefit from the same effort makes common sense.
• Erik Solheim is chair of the OECD development assistance committee and former minister of the environment and international development in Norway. The OECD's development co-operation report, Ending Poverty, will be the subject of a live-streamed discussion organised by OECD and Intelligence Squared in London on Thursday at 7pm