TCS Daily

Poor Choices

By James S. Shikwati - August 28, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - The World Summit on Sustainable Development has focused on the issue of poverty. In his opening remarks South African president Thabo Mbeki, lamenting the current inequalities between the wealthy and poor, called for "wealth sharing" as a way out. How does he propose to go about this?

South Africa is a country of two worlds: The wealthiest and the poorest. So, this country's history can better illustrate an approach out of poverty.

During the apartheid era, blacks had no economic freedom. Whites were relatively free and others benefited from plunder of state resources. The black populations were forbidden from trading in certain areas of the country, and they mostly favored socialism. This background made the blacks poorer and the whites richer. The emerging fact here is that the policy system made a section of the population to become disadvantaged.

To take people out of poverty, the focus needs to be on safeguarding their economic freedom. Less government intervention in private economic initiatives and securing property rights will act as incentives for economic growth. But the poor populations will remain poor if the rest of the world, through the vehicle of the United Nations, decides to plan and intervene in personal enterprises. And that is what some people here at the summit seem keen to achieve: limiting people's productivity.

On the other hand, the South African government "dehawked" the street for the summit, throwing out traders, taxi drivers and farmers who sell goods. This treatment of the hawkers is a good illustration of treatment counterproductive to development.

At the summit venue, civil society groups -- most of them from the developed nations -- are busy networking to pay attention to the plight of the hawkers. Of interest is that they seem to be doing it on behalf of the poor countries. The few Third World NGOs around do not have the funding and sophisticated equipment to voice their concerns. To make it worse, media houses based in the poor countries are not well represented.

The wealthy countries want the Earth to be green. The underdeveloped want the Earth fed. Exploitation of the natural resources created the wealth that feeds the rich countries. To bar the underdeveloped from utilizing their own resources is to make them die hungry. To propose that the poor should not have the freedom to choose which technology is best for them is to limit economic growth.

Where are the poor in the summit? They are hardly represented by those "Third World" NGOs here - who pander to wealthy countries in the name of Sustainable
Development - perhaps to sustain themselves. The summit is expected to pass resolutions that will make it difficult for the poor to make use of the resources next to them in the name of conservation. High standards for environmental laws will simply make it more difficult for the poor to market their products abroad. Production costs will increase significantly due to environmental laws. And developed countries are more often rejecting agricultural goods from poor countries under the pretext that they carry with them residue pests.

The reduction in fossil fuels in order to utilize more "renewable energy" also will make the underdeveloped stagnate. Why is the developed world keen on preventing the underdeveloped from making use of natural resources that they themselves used to develop?

A delegate from Sweden pointed out that "the poor should not be allowed to make the same mistakes the developed made leading to pollution, the poor should leap-frog in order to attain sustainable development." But what gives the developed nations the right to make choices for the poor?

One of the WSSD volunteers that I talked with, a student at the Rand African University observed, "Africans, and by extension Third World countries, should not wait to be spoon-fed by the West." The poor need freedom to utilize their talents. They want to utilize their own resources. They want good governance that will protect their wealth. The Earth Summit unfortunately has too little concern for the real views of the poor.

The author is Director of the Inter Region Economic Network, IREN Kenya.



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