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Five myths about poverty

The 1998 Human Development Report debunks myths about poverty and environmental problems in the developing world. 

In the November 1998 issue of Share International we published an article from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled ëRunaway consumption widens gap between rich and poor', which discusses the 1998 Human Development Report. The Report – by a team of independent experts – as well as advocating major changes in policies, institutions and values, and "a big sense of collective responsibility" debunks five myths related to tackling poverty and environmental problems in developing countries.

Myth number 1: Subsidies on energy, water and other natural resources benefit poor people.

The poor are often unserved by these connections and the subsidies therefore often facilitate the waste of these resources by the rich.

The report urges an end to perverse subsidies in agriculture, energy, water and road transport totaling US$700-$900 thousand million a year.

"Every year, the world spends a fortune subsidizing its own destruction," says Richard Jolly, principal co-ordinator of the report. "Cutting perverse subsidies could reduce taxes, strengthen incentives for conservation and free up resources for investing in environment-boosting technologies. Both rich and poor could benefit."

Myth number 2: Poor people cannot contribute to the costs of basic resources.

Most poor families already pay for the basics, and in addition are often willing to contribute time to improving community water and sanitation systems.

Myth number 3: Developing countries should imitate what industrialized countries have done.

While there is much to learn from the experiences of industrialized countries in dealing with the environment, there is also an opportunity to avoid mistakes, adopt new technologies and minimize the cost of solutions.

Developing countries can ëleapfrog' the pitfalls of Western-style growth by turning to abundant clean energy sources, less energy-intensive crop production, and cleaner manufacturing processes that avoid the huge costs of environmental clean-up that many countries are now incurring.

Myth number 4: Developing countries should restrain consumption, industrialization and development to avoid exacerbating environmental problems.

In most developing countries, consumption is still so low that it must be increased, using emerging technologies, shifts in natural resource use, and innovative policies to avoid adverse environmental impacts.

"Poor people and poor countries need to accelerate the growth of their consumption," says James Gustave Speth, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. "But they need not follow the path trodden by the rich and high-growth economies. Production techniques can be made more environmentally friendly, and environmental damage can be reversed. The need is not so much for more consumption or for less, but for a different pattern of consumption – consumption for human development."

"The need is not so much for more consumption or for less, but for a different pattern of consumption - consumption for human development."

Myth number 5. The scope for alternative anti-pollution policies is limited in developing countries.

There are many policy options for developing countries to ensure clean air, through various incentives, taxes and legislation.

The report identifies actions already taken in some poor countries to adopt cheap, effective, and politically less contentious anti-pollution policies, initiatives that its authors say have dispelled the myth that such possibilities are limited.

A significant number of countries are managing to improve human consumption patterns and protect the environment. The report points to: Singapore, which has combined congestion taxes on automobiles with improved public transportation; Chile, which has improved air quality in Santiago with an effective combination of regulation, traffic management and monitoring; and Egypt, which has reduced the hazards of solid waste disposal in Alexandria by converting high-risk solids to organic fertilizer.

From the March 1999 issue of Share International.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005