New Emperors, Old Clothes

| 1st July 2005
Anyone serious about making poverty history needs to understand where poverty actually comes from and what it really is.

From Bob Geldof to Gordon Brown, the world suddenly seems to be full of high-profile people with their own plans to end poverty. Jeffrey Sachs is another one. Unfortunately, he’s not a here-today, gone-tomorrow celebrity/ politician, 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 took notice.

But, there is a problem with Sachs’ and so many of the other end-poverty prescriptions. Sachs 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, before 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 riches accumulated by Europe are 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 Africa’s slavery, the Industrial Revolution would not have led to new riches for Europe or the US. 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. First, the destruction of nature and of people’s ability to look after themselves are blamed not on growth, but on each other. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: growth is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and environmental crisis that it has given rise to in the first place. This is the message of Sachs’ analysis.

The second myth is the 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 this does not contribute to GDP, and so does not contribute towards ‘growth’. People are therefore perceived as poor if they eat the food they have grown rather than commercially produced and distributed processed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made form ecologically adapted natural materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.

Yet sustenance living, which the rich West perceives as poverty, does not necessarily imply a low physical 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 right to food and water, sustainability of livelihoods, and robust social and cultural identity and meaning.

Because these poor don’t share in the perceived benefits of economic growth, however, they are presented as ‘those left behind’. This false separation of the processes that create affluence from 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 development like those of Sachs, however, account for only a negligible part of human history. For centuries, living according to principles of sustenance has given human societies the material basis for survival. Limits in nature have been respected and have guided the limits of human consumption. When society’s relationship with nature is based on sustenance, nature exists as a commons. It only becomes a resource when profit becomes the organising principle and creates a financial imperative for the exploitation of this ‘resource’ for the market.

But however much we choose to forget or deny it, all people in all societies still depend on nature. Without clean water, fertile soils and vegetable genetic diversity, human survival is not possible. Today, economic development is destroying these onetime commons, resulting in the creation of a new contradiction: development deprives the very people it professes to help of their traditional land and means of sustenance, forcing them to survive in an increasingly eroded natural world.

A system like this, one that creates denial and disease while  accumulating trillions of dollars of super profits for agribusiness, is a system for creating poverty for people. Poverty is not, as Sachs suggests, an initial state from which to escape. It is a final state reached when one-sided development has destroyed the ecological and social systems for maintaining the life, health and sustenance of people and the planet.

The reality is that people do not die for lack of income. They die for lack of access to resources. Here, too, Sachs is wrong when he says: ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalayas, peasants anywhere whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity have not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day.

On the other hand, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Because of dumping and trade liberalisation, farm prices in India are tumbling, meaning that the country’s peasants are losing $26 billion each year; this at a time when ‘development’ is all the while creating markets for costly seeds and agrichemicals. Unable to exist in the world that has been created for them, these now poverty-stricken peasants are committing suicide in their thousands.

Patents on medicines increase the cost of Aids drugs from $200 to $20,000, and cancer drugs from $2,400 to $36,000, for a year’s treatment. Water is privatised and global corporations profit to the tune of $1 trillion by selling once free water to the poor. So, too, the $50 billion of ‘aid’ trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500 billion being sucked South to North thanks to interest payments and other unjust mechanisms in the global economy imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.

If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending the systems for wealth creation which create poverty by robbing the poor of their resources, livelihoods and incomes. Before we can make poverty history, we need to get the history of poverty right. It’s not about how much more we can give, so much as how much less we can take.

Vandana Shiva is director of the Delhibased Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology The $50 billion of ‘aid’ trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500 billion being sucked South to North thanks to interest payments and other unjust mechanisms imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005

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