More than ever, national governments, international institutions, and donors are focused on poverty reduction. But their efforts have often given limited attention to the role of healthy ecosystems in providing sustainable livelihoods, and equally limited attention to the importance of environmental governance in empowering the poor. The models of economic growth that nations continue to rely on for poverty reduction – job creation through increased industrialization, intensified large-scale agriculture, industrial fishing fleets, and so on – do not fully appreciate the realities of rural livelihoods.
For example, these strategies miss the fundamental fact that if ecosystems decline through poor governance, the assets of the poor decline with them. Findings from the recently concluded Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – a five-year effort to survey the condition of global ecosystems – confirm that the burden of environmental decline already falls heaviest on the poor (MA 2005:2). This often results in an immediate drop in living standards – a descent into greater poverty. This in turn precipitates migration from rural areas to urban slums or a resort to unsustainable environmental practices – overfishing, deforestation, or depletion of soil nutrients – for bare survival’s sake. For this reason alone – simply to prevent an increase in poverty – greater attention to ecosystem management and governance practices that serve the poor is vital. The promise that environment can be one of the engines of rural growth is all the more reason to keep environment as a focal point in poverty reduction efforts.
Refocusing the Millennium Development Goals
One way to increase the profile of environment and governance in poverty reduction is to make them more dynamic players in the global effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs represent a new commitment by the world community to concentrate on poverty alleviation. Nations have endorsed a limited set of universally accepted goals and time-bound targets, and have promised to measure progress toward these goals and hold the community of nations accountable. Goal 7 of the MDGs recognizes the connection between environmental sustainability and poverty reduction, with a specific commitment to “[i ]ntegrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources” (UN General Assembly 2001).
Unfortunately, this sustainable development target is the least specific and the least understood by nations of all the MDG targets, making it easy to pass over in favor of targets that are simpler to understand and measure, such as the provision of safe drinking water, or the reduction of infant mortality. In addition, no specific measures of governance (with the exception of measuring the tenure security of urban slum dwellers) are included in the sustainable development target, so the essential tie between a healthier environment and the governance of natural resources is missing.
Furthermore, the idea that the sustainable development goal is basic to the achievement of all the other goals and central to lasting progress against poverty is acknowledged in the MDG structure, but it is not elaborated in a way that guides nations to act or gives them adequate measures of how well they are integrating sustainable development principles in their work to meet the other MDGs (UNDP 2005:3-5). Addressing these important lacks requires clearer guidance on the links between ecosystems, governance, and each MDG, as well as an expanded slate of indicators that better encompasses the governance dimension of these goals.
Refocusing Poverty Reduction Strategies
Much the same kind of criticism can be made of the process that developing countries are using to design their national efforts to reduce poverty. Guided by the World Bank, poor nations are drawing up formal plans – called poverty reduction strategy papers, or PRSPs – that describe how they envision creating the conditions for growth and social development that will raise incomes and lower national poverty rates (Boj