Ecology Center Terrain

September 1992

Hunger, Poverty, and the Environment

By Joel Rubinstein

The recent Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro was held because of growing recognition of the connections between environmental problems, poverty and hunger, and development. The influence of poverty on the environment is explained in UNICEF's State of the World's Children 1991 report:

For the majority of mankind, the greatest environmental threat is not progress but poverty. Poverty and the lack of alternatives drive rural people to the burning of forests, the tilling of marginal lands, the over-dependence of finding grazing for cattle, the over-cutting of trees for fuel. Poverty and lack of confidence in the future are also engines of rapid population growth.

This last point deserves clarification. We know that the population of the world is growing rapidly, and that the growth rates are fastest in the poorest countries. If we could find a way to end the hunger and poverty-related deaths in poor countries, wouldn't this just accelerate the population explosion? Precisely the contrary is true. Reducing the child death rate is necessary in order to cut the birth rate. In poor countries, where there is no Social Security, children are the primary old-age security. Parents have to have large families to ensure that some of their children will survive to take care of them when they get old. But as the children stop dying, parents have fewer children. In fact, no country has managed to have significant reductions in their birth rate without first reducing the child death rate.

Although famines such as the famous ones in Ethiopia and now Somalia receive more publicity, chronic persistent hunger kills more people. The United Nations has quoted 1.5 million as the number of likely deaths in Somalia if the world does not act right away; yet 15 million children under age 5 will die this year, most of preventable causes. Children are the main victims of both famines and chronic persistent hunger.

If poverty is the greatest environmental threat to the majority of mankind, what can we do about it? At the World Summit for Children, September 29-30, 1990, President Bush joined 71 Heads of State at the UN in unanimous approval of the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. This declaration promised by the year 2000 to reduce infant mortality by at least one third in every country, to reduce maternal mortality by half, and to provide universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, and basic education. Keeping the promises made at the World Summit for Children would save at least 50 million children in the 1990s, and break the feedback loops between poverty and destruction of the environment.

What will it cost to keep these promises to the world's children? UNICEF estimates that the worldwide costs will average $20 billion per year in the 1990s, and that the poor countries will contribute two-thirds of this. Thus, a fair share for the United States would be less than $2 billion per year during the 1990s. The money is available. The military component of the United States foreign aid budget is $8 billion in Fiscal Year 1992. Recognizing the reduced military security needs following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the Bush Administration has proposed a $600 million cut in military foreign aid for 1993. But much greater cuts are possible.

The promises of the World Summit for Children will not be fulfilled by wishing. Citizen activism and lobbying will be needed both in rich countries and in the developing world. RESULTS, an international anti-hunger lobby, is leading the Keeping the Promise Campaign to inform the public and keep the promises of the World Summit for Children on the political agenda. RESULTS has prepared lesson plans for Keeping the Promise activities in schools, from kindergarten through university, scheduled for the week of October 12-16. RESULTS is supporting the Children's Defense Fund's (CDF) National Observance of Children's Sabbaths October 16-18. Worship materials for Christian, Jewish and Moslem services are available from RESULTS; please call 202-546-xxxx to obtain the lesson plans or worship materials, or for more information. CDF's free "Guide for the National Observances of Children's Sabbaths" for Catholic, African American, other Christian, and Jewish worship is available from Shannon Daley, Children's Defense Fund, 25 E St. NW, Washington DC 20001.

RESULTS has had over a decade of striking legislative success in mustering political support for programs like UNICEF and Child Survival, loan programs to help poor people in developing countries start small businesses to end their own poverty, and domestic anti-poverty children's programs including WIC and Head Start. There are six RESULTS groups in the Bay Area meeting monthly to create the political will to end hunger. For further information about RESULTS or the Keeping the Promise Campaign, please call Joel Rubinstein at 510-655-xxxx.