Friday, March 6, 2015

Valuation for Poverty Alleviation?

Just as a mark of how quickly time seems to pass, I was about to begin this blog post in the same way as last year’s Live Below the Line intro. Oh, wait, I just have. Whether time appears to fly or not, it is perhaps humbling (or even disturbing) to note that the challenge remains the same. While the Live Below the Line challenge is in its fifth year of building awareness and empathy around some of the Millennium Goals set a decade and a half ago, those very same goals of halving hunger and reaching gender equality remain, for the most part, unmet. While the UN itself would argue we’ve made great progress, others argue we have fallen far short of making the changes that are actually needed. The extreme is Sub-Saharan Africa, trailing in each of the 8 goals and 21 indicators.  

However, my intention of this post is not to debate the merit or success of Millennium Development Goals in making the world a more equitable, healthier, happier place in which to live. Instead, I wanted to recall My Munchable’s original premise of drawing human-environment connections, and note how those goals of poverty and hunger alleviation and environmental preservation are in fact very much intertwined. The past week has proved particularly lively in discussions on ecosystem services - simply put, the benefits nature provides to humans - so I thought it might be an appropriate time to broach the topic here.

In fact, there has been quite a bit of thought on how nature and the environment - and services like clear water, soil health, pollination - contribute to things like reducing poverty and hunger. From the most basic application, where nearly half of global population is rural (47%, and let’s assume involved in agriculture) and 70% for the world’s poorest, ecological health underpins our ability to produce food. You can take it a step further back along the chain of cause-and-effect, to how pollution might lead to undermining human health or how insufficient access to ‘sustainable’ energy can spur on degradation of ecosystems. It’s essentially a cost-benefit balance sheet.

So when I said that ‘ecosystem services’ has been on my radar for the past week, what I really meant is the challenge of placing value on the services that, in our capitalist economies and global marketplace, nature seemingly provides for free. This is an important aspect in contemplating the poor and most vulnerable in the lead-up to living below the line. Why? Well, for one the beneficiary of exploiting the environment is likely not the same as the one bearing the cost, not realized in monetary terms. A mining company may benefit from disrupting an ecosystem and extracting resources, but a downstream community might ultimately bear the cost to health and livelihoods from mine tailings polluting water and fields. On the balance sheet, a company sees minimal costs because not all are priced in terms of dollars and cents. As a dispersed group of affected individuals (and a voiceless Mother Earth), it is next to impossible to bring these non-monetized costs to bear.

I want to make it clear that this is not an argument for attaching a monetary value to everything under the sun. That’s just working within our current system, and not thinking of creative ways to modify the system to be more just. There are many endangered ecosystem services that affect the lives of the poor (due to their greater reliance directly on natural resources for income) for which pricing might be feasible or the regulatory framework restructured in a way to change the incentive to exploit nature. The talk yesterday by a visiting researcher argued for a different mechanism to capture the less tangible values, the socially and culturally embedded ones in particular, which affect quality of life. These still elude me, but perhaps it’s a new direction of thought we should take.  
Moving back to Live Below the Line. This will be the fourth year in which I participate, once again living on £1.00 per day (almost equivalent now to the $1.50 in US) for a week at the end of April. Alas, my charity of choice for the past three years is no longer an option. So this year I am supporting The Hunger Project, an NGO using community partnerships to address poverty and hunger. Environmental integrity and gender equality are integral components to their approach, drawing together these two streams of ecosystem services and environmental justice. Help me contribute to furthering the effort. And of course, stay tuned to the blog over the next couple of month (or longer…)!!

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