Population People

Posted January 1999

Special: Population, poverty and environment

Report of the Thematic Workshop on Population, Poverty and Environment: Highlights

26 -30 October 1998

  • Population and poverty: the policy issues, by Geoffrey McNicoll
  • Population and environmental change: from linkages to policy issues, by Alain Marcoux
  • Rural poverty: population dynamics, local institutions and access to resources, by Eve Crowley and Kirsten Appendini
  • Anthropometric, health and demographic indicators, by Simon Chevassus-Agnès
  • Workshop report highlights
  • The following extracts from the Workshop report highlight the substantive discussions that took place during the week and the conclusions reached.

    Objectives of the Workshop

    The critical question that the Workshop attempted to advance was: How can the UNFPA Technical Support Services (TSS) system's Country Support Teams (CSTs) enhance the contribution of population programmes to poverty alleviation and to the promotion of sustainable development? This potential contribution has to be viewed not only within the context of institutional advantages and constraints, but also within the more general framework of the potential assistance that can be provided by population institutions and population expertise in general.

    Although the Workshop participants represented various areas of specialization, the discussions centered principally on themes germane to UNFPA's Population and Development Strategies (PDS) programme area, with special attention to socio-cultural and gender aspects. Consequently, the discussions, programmatic and operational suggestions made during the Workshop pertain principally to those areas.

    Poverty: levels, factors and prospects for change

    The Workshop began with an overview of poverty levels throughout the world. Measurement problems notwithstanding, estimates of global poverty suggest that around one third of the world's population are still poor, with more than a billion living in absolute poverty; even more telling is the fact that only in East Asia the incidence of poverty has registered a significant decline during the last decade. In general, two basic paths to poverty reduction can be envisaged: social programs and economic growth. At the same time, these paths do not equally and automatically promote environmental sustainability.

    Economic, social and environmental aspects are all closely linked. For instance, although poverty alleviation can be promoted through social programs, these programmes are easier sustained if there is economic growth. Hence, a critical issue at the present time is whether the prevalent model of economic growth, based primarily on the liberalization of market forces, will be able to [a] promote protracted economic growth and [b] make a significant indent on poverty levels by disseminating its benefits widely across social groups. At the same time, there is concern whether such sustained economic growth can occur at the world level without generating an even faster depletion of natural resources and vastly increasing environmental pollution.

    Structural adjustment measures have increased the need for efficiency in administering scarce resources in the social area. In terms of more effective approaches to social policy management, it was suggested that, since governments increasingly have a shortfall of funds, particularly for social provisions, and are increasingly finding it difficult to reach the marginalized groups, alternative systems of social service delivery need to be considered. The issue here is the need for good governance structures. Decentralization and strengthening local government were advanced as key factors for the proper management of social and economic policies - particularly of the marginalized groups - thus enhancing the efficiency of the provision of services, with subsequent multiplier effects.

    Two types of programs at the macro level were suggested for poverty alleviation: programs for employment and income generation - either through wage or self-employment - and social welfare measures to attend to the basic needs. The dilemma here, however, is that neither of these two approaches can be sustained for long periods, or for a large segment of the population, without economic growth. This obliges one to examine the world development context.

    The ability of the current model of growth to provide the social advancement and environmental sustainability desired by all has come under question. Given the relatively recent and still partial process of liberalization and globalization of markets, it may still be premature to draw long-term conclusions about the ability of this model to deal effectively with economic, social and environmental challenges. The signs are not particularly promising at this time. Recessions and crises appear to be a recurrent facet of the current globalization process; these inevitably result in the severe contraction of economic activity and thus in increasing poverty. Unquestionably, a high rate of economic growth is a necessary but insufficient condition for reducing poverty; output growth must eventually translate into higher incomes for the poor.

    Altogether, this raises a number of questions, namely: Can the desired rates of economic growth be achieved in all developing countries? Can such growth be sustained? How will growth patterns be affected by recurrent abrupt reversals and crises? Can this economic growth be more equitably distributed, thereby resulting in the social and economic empowerment of the poor and a general improvement in welfare? At the outset then, three development issues stand out. First, economic growth efforts, though necessary, may in themselves be effective in reducing neither poverty nor inequality. Second, the social sectors, despite their renewed importance in the discourse of international development agencies, have also been unable to make much headway. Thirdly, the current pattern of economic growth is associated with the more pervasive and destructive forms of environmental degradation.

    What is the potential role for the population field and, by extension, CST personnel, in this scenario? This of course depends on how population is thought to be linked to, both development efforts and poverty alleviation on the one hand, and environmental outcomes on the other.

    Poverty and population

    As regards the relation between poverty and population, non-experts are generally surprised to find that the relationship is neither obvious nor simple. Attempts to establish correlations at the aggregate level provide a confused picture due to time lags, non-linearities, reverse causation, institutional practices and other factors, including external political and economic shocks. Nevertheless, there are many real though indirect or diffused links at the country or social group level. Consequently, most social scientists would concur that there is a real connection between population growth and poverty and, hence, efforts to slow down population growth and to reduce poverty are mutually reinforcing.

    Possible local scenarios of impoverishment include: intra-family transmission of poverty [1]; the "tragedy of the commons" [2]; low-level social equilibria [3]; or unilateral transfers [4]. The required policy interventions are based on the intersection between different domains: education; health; family planning; target groups for poverty alleviation; and institutional renovation. Issues related to governance and democracy are at the forefront of poverty alleviation efforts: when interventions in these domains are tailored to particular circumstances and existing organizational and administrative capabilities, they can transform local perceptions and realities in ways that create new avenues of economic mobility and associated demographic behavior.

    The critical question in this context is: What can CST Advisors do concretely with respect to poverty, considering that their underlying mandate is centered on "population"? The traditional answer has been in terms of contributing to the better design of social programs and policies (including designing specific programmes for the poorest groups) and, more generally, of "incorporating population factors in development planning." The practical meaning of this latter recommendation, however, has not always been clear, even in the case of limited population groups or social programs.

    For instance, community case studies reflecting ongoing research on artisanal fisherfolk were presented in the Workshop. These can be seen as a microcosm of the dilemmas and complexities of implementing population and development strategies. When integrating population concerns into development planning, it is necessary to disentangle the sectoral elements of the objectives, since they do not all necessarily point in the same direction. As a first step one needs to collect and analyze data on population issues relevant to each sector. The critical issue here is the ability to ask the right questions - a task which may not always be as simple or straightforward as it looks.

    Another illustration was the presentation on forest assessment. Remote sensing techniques enable differentiating the impacts of different population groups in the observed sites. In a pilot study on the Amazon region, the observations were coupled with geographically detailed demographic data, enabling an exploration of the correlation between population and deforestation for diagnostic purposes (as well as to enable better stratification of future samples). The discussion highlighted the need for a multi-sectoral perspective which considers not only population trends but also a good view of the range of actors in play and their objectives, the changes in macro-economic and agricultural policies and socio-economic conditions.

    Viewed in a more general perspective, the potential contribution of CST Advisors to the reduction of poverty, within the context of country population programs, can be seen at different levels. On the one hand, they can contribute to establishing more adequate definitions and estimates. Indeed, a recurrent issue which received considerable attention in this connection is the measurement of poverty (how do we define appropriate measurement procedures and methods and harmonize them at different geographical levels?) Policy-wise then, a promising line seems to be that of efforts such as the UN Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAF) and Common Country Assessments (CCA) [5]? Greater inter-sectoral and inter-agency coordination will be necessary in this respect. For this purpose also, national institutional stability has to be guaranteed, a fact which forces us to look at the sustainability of capacity building, institutional reinforcement and self-reliance in the population domain. CST Advisors can help orient population activities in the proper direction during different phases of the programmatic process.

    A related task involves contributing to the better design of social policies and programs. Demographic data and techniques permit us to evaluate ongoing trends and pinpoint evolving priorities in the demand for social actions by the public sector in different population groups. Ensuring the availability of updated and appropriate information, while providing technical assistance to research aimed at identifying target populations, effectively helps to constitute a suitable base for more efficient social programs. At the same time, promoting research and providing advice to analyses of the short and long-term impacts of economic and social programs helps to reorient policy and maximize the effectiveness of inherently scarce resources. One area which would require particular thought and ingenuity is how to react more effectively to crisis situations caused by environmental or political disasters.

    On another level, the CST Advisors can participate in the dissemination of information concerning the impacts of activities in the reproductive health domain and, thereby, contribute indirectly to a country's development efforts. There is a growing body of literature which demonstrates the positive implications of reproductive health for the formation of human capital and thus for improving a country's capacity to participate more favorably in the internationalized process of economic competition. Enhanced competitiveness, in turn, provides the basis for social progress in the current development scenario. This type of literature and its programmatic implications needs to be brought to the attention of policymakers and planners, in order to ensure fuller cooperation between different institutional segments in the Reproductive Health (RH) domain.

    At the same time, it may be necessary to overcome a long-established but somewhat misleading tradition, which tends to look exclusively at fertility issues when analyzing linkages between poverty and population dynamics. The need to promote reproductive health for purposes of advancing social and economic goals is almost universally accepted and, hence, that agenda is clear. In order to fully exploit the possibilities of interventions in the population area on poverty, however, it is essential to understand and act upon other human development interventions such as migration, urbanization, labor force composition, evolution of markets for goods and services, ageing, environment etc., which are all directly related to development processes.

    In this vein, in order to exploit the full potential of population tools for the promotion of development, we will need to examine a more complete set of population-development-poverty interactions than the one related to fertility change. More specifically, it is useful to ask: What can we contribute to development utilizing the tools and knowledge of the population sciences? Policy formulation entails taking a close look at a variety of factors capable of influencing the production process in a country - including such things as size, composition and qualification of the labor force, spatial distribution, natural resources, location and probable evolution of different market segments. The population field possesses useful instruments with which to contribute to such stocktaking and scenario building. The CST Advisors, particularly those working in the PDS domain, should help to make better known and concretize this potential advantage, thereby contributing to poverty alleviation via practical inputs to the current development process.

    The nexus between population and environment and implications for poverty

    Population, natural resource and environmental issues are linked in complex ways and at different levels of economic development. For example, much of the environmental degradation witnessed today has been attributed primarily to two groups of people - the top billion richest and the bottom billion poorest. High-income consumers in North America, Europe and Asia destroy the environment in an indirect way through their consumption patterns and the generation of vast quantities of waste. The bottom billion poorest destroy their own resource base out of necessity and lack of options. In both cases, population growth and consumption patterns have to be considered. Although everyone would agree that it is unrealistic to discuss sustainable development without reference to the resource base, to population and to development patterns, several conflicting representations can be found in the literature as concerns the relations between environment and population. Attention at the policymaking level has focused almost exclusively on the relationship between population growth and environmental outcomes. Depending on whether one approaches population-environment relations from the standpoint of natural sciences, neoclassical economics or political ecology, policy recommendations in this respect can range from immediate stoppage of population growth to complete laissez-faire.

    For purposes of CST work it is clear that population dynamics must be taken into account in relation to environmental outcomes and not regarded as a mere exogenous variable. Three-way linkages between poverty, population and environment (the P-P-E nexus) exist and must be addressed. So far, policy approaches have generally been limited to acting on fertility. The negative view of the P-P-E nexus is that the elements are linked in a vicious circle, producing a deadlock. The empirical evidence would appear to support this view. The positive view reflected in the ICPD Programme of Action is based on the premise that progress in one of the interlinked sectors is likely to generate positive effects on the others. However, since in turn outcomes in one sector are limited by constraints in other sectors, cumulating standard sectoral policies may not be as effective as expected. Hence the need to look for measures that produce synergies between population, anti-poverty, and environmental policies.

    Two case studies presented in the Workshop underscore the complex relationship between population growth, institutions and access to resources. Institutions are found to be capable of change; they mediate between population growth and access to resources in different ways. The capacity of community institutions to manage resources effectively is not necessarily undermined by population growth. Institutional parameters change and can provide opportunities for policy changes. Population policies should be seen as part of a healthy forward-looking development process. Thus, it should be possible to effectively integrate gender issues and reproductive health issues with rural development programs and conservation efforts.

    The specific role that CST Advisors can play in the environmental domain needs to be clarified. The great majority of them may not be schooled in population/environment issues; at the same time, the population-environment (P-E) domain has proven to be extremely complex when it comes to providing effective guidelines for policy and action - beyond what is already being done in either the population or the environment domain. Beyond simplistic illations, the vast P-E literature has been hard put to come up with practical policy indications. Nevertheless, it is insufficient to simply trust that efforts in the RH domain will eventually help assuage environmental problems.

    In practice, a key role of CST Advisors may be to mobilize UNFPA Representatives and others to incorporate a concern with environmental issues and to allocate programmatic resources for P-E research and action in country programs. Then, specialized technical resources may have to be brought in to help utilize these funds in the most effective manner. In other words, the primary task might be one of advocacy and support for P-E activities, which would then draw on either national or international resources to design and carry them out.

    Some of the activities and concerns which could be promoted at the country level, in order to improve environmental policy might include: identify the country's or region's priority environmental issues in a disaggregated manner (thus the impacts of various issues on human populations can be assessed and compared so as to evaluate human vulnerability in ecologically sensitive areas.); generate a sensible representation of key linkages in order to provide advice on how to redirect existing policies to seek greater internal efficiency and greater synergies; address the processes that underlie specific demographic, poverty and environmental outcomes (for instance understanding the functions of large families in rural areas and the rationality of households); pay special attention to the productivity of women's labor since higher female productivity is an incentive to smaller families, better management of local resources and environment; examine chains of explanation at different levels of generality; and focus research on specific decision problems in order to illustrate the potential value of "integrating population variables into development planning".

    Nutrition and poverty

    The issue of nutrition has a number of conceptual and practical intersections with that of poverty, population and environment and was thus given a prominent place in the Workshop's agenda. A comprehensive review of the nature and extent of food and nutrition problems at the global, regional and country levels, as well as the linkages between agricultural development, food production and nutritional levels was presented. As far as the connection between poverty, population and nutrition is concerned, the relationship is more complex than would immediately appear since changing land tenure and commercial practices linked to the international market often have a significant impact on outcomes.

    As concerns the implications of nutritional problems for CST work, a first limitation is that most of the elements which would directly facilitate the achievement of household food security and improved nutrition are outside the sphere of population programs. These include, for instance: the existence of an appropriate macro-economic framework, the limitations to the free movement of food commodities between countries by national import/export restrictions, and the adoption of structural adjustment programs which have affected household food security and thus the nutritional status of household members.

    On the other hand, a number of nutritional issues can be influenced indirectly by initiatives in the population field, with the support of CST Advisors. These include: the incorporation of nutrition objectives into development plans; the adoption of measures to improve household food security, and to combat micro-nutrient deficiencies; the promotion of education, especially nutrition education and the education of women; the elimination of dietary habits which inhibit consumption of more nutritious foodstuffs; and the promotion of changes in the intra-household distribution of food where the latter negatively affects the nutritional well-being of certain household members, especially women and children. Lastly, it is of some relevance that nutrition has an impact on mortality as well as on the productivity of the workforce.

    On the environmental side, the main challenge is to identify technologies for sustainable production on resource-poor land, and policies that help farmers, especially poor ones, to adopt farming methods that are ecologically sound, socially acceptable and nutritionally and economically beneficial. To have agricultural projects that help improve nutrition in a sustainable manner, we must identify the problems and formulate responses for well-defined target groups and objectives. Poverty is a major cause and effect of the deterioration of land and water resources: the poorer the villagers become, the more likely they are to exploit fragile resources. On the other hand, once poor farmers are assured of their food supply, this will reduce the need to continue with environmentally damaging practices. Another environmental problem is the excessive or inappropriate use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers which may occur in the attempt to increase food production. Such uses that are not in accordance with good agricultural practices may also affect the safety, quality and wholesomeness of the food supply for which effective food control and monitoring systems are necessary. The CSTs may find it useful to review existing research and information on all these issues, and to advise further study thereof at country level where relevant.

    Finally, the issue of what to measure with regard to nutrition - and how - was given considerable play in the Workshop. FAO's conceptual framework for understanding possible causes of low food consumption and poor nutritional status was presented along with a set of indicators for the assessment of nutritional status of the population, food supply and consumption. A number of practical suggestions were made which would enhance the value of this instrument. At the same time, it appears that measurement efforts, whether through anthropometric or other techniques, are again somewhat marginal to the CST's primary activities. But it was noted that DHS surveys can be a complementary source of data on the nutritional status of a population, since the existing nutritional dimension in DHS could profitably be strengthened. It would be useful for countries to measure status and assess progress of nutrition development program in the context of other population and RH/FP program operations. Moreover, greater effort should be devoted to sharing information and experiences with other development programs (particularly in the UN system), through common country strategy assessment and a co-ordinating framework.

    Migration, urbanization and poverty

    The Workshop dedicated two sessions to the discussion of this topic and its policy implications. The processes of rural-urban migration, urbanization, urban growth, growth of the informal sector and their relation to poverty have generated reams of literature in the last few decades without, however, producing a clear-cut consensus. As could be expected, participants in the Workshop were also divided on these various issues, leading to a spirited debate.

    Nevertheless, in the end-of-century scenario, a new perspective on urbanization and its implications seems to be emerging. First of all, with fertility declining significantly everywhere except in sub-Saharan Africa, urban growth appears as the most significant demographic process in the present and future context. Indeed, according to UN projections, 90 percent of all population growth in developing countries will occur in cities. Natural increase will be the main component of urban growth as rural-to-urban migration loses momentum. Moreover, given the ascertained inverse relationship between urbanization and fertility decline in many parts of the world, it can be expected that rapid urbanization will further accentuate fertility reduction in the future.

    Secondly, economic globalization and the current process of heightened international competition provide a new context within which to evaluate urban growth processes. In this context internal changes in agricultural/non-agricultural demand for labour (and consequent sectoral distribution of labour force), which in the best case were the key determinant of the rhythm of urbanization, will also be influenced by external factors such as trade opportunities and the comparative advantages of a country's urban and rural economies vis--vis their respective competitors. But at any rate urbanization is likely to remain a major feature, particularly in populous countries which now have a predominantly rural base. Migration will continue to play a large role in the diffusion of new ideas - including in the human reproductive sphere - and thus in social change; and remittances, from both national and international migrants, are likely to play an increasing part in the social development of more backward rural areas.

    Thirdly, the role of the informal sector is under revision. Traditionally, the capacity to absorb a growing labour force was understood as establishing gainful employment in the formal sector, primarily in the urban setting. Historically, however, the formal sector has failed to provide enough jobs and thus pushed many into the informal sector to eke out a living. The increased participation of women in informal sector activities and the increase in child labour are part and parcel of the dire situation with regard to raising cash revenues. Today, the informal sector increases in size and importance as economic restructuring, stimulated by adjustment reforms and liberalization policies, implies a slower rate of formal job creation. For the future also it seems that the informal sector will play an increasing role in economic development and poverty alleviation.

    From a social standpoint, cities have been inter alia the locus for concentration of poor people in slum areas. Yet, on average, urban dwellers (but not slum dwellers) throughout the world actually have greater access to health, education and sanitation than rural dwellers, in part because population concentration facilitates the provision of such services at lower unit costs. But the inability of urban institutions to provide for the needs of this marginalized population by way of infrastructure and services persists. These situations certainly merit full and continuing attention.

    From an environmental standpoint, urban agglomerations have been objects of long-standing concern due to the concentration of pollution and rate of waste generation as well as their voracity in terms of absorbing resources. Though this is an undeniable facet of the urban situation such as we know it today, urban concentration has several potential advantages for environmental well-being - if a proactive stance is taken towards the inevitable process of demographic concentration, particularly through the provision of education, health care and jobs.

    CSTs have traditionally promoted research on migration, urbanization, poverty, and changes in the labour force, as part of their contributions to population programs. Such activities should evidently continue to be pursued in the future. A greater awareness of the changing role of migration, urbanization and cities in the developing process may prompt a more proactive role than has been characteristic in the past. In other words, CST experts may have to adapt traditional views on urban growth to a changing context. In that light, for instance, since urbanization is considered inevitable, it may be critical to try to help orient the direction, form and social organization of this transformation in a proactive way, rather than reacting to what has already occurred, as is wont to happen in the present framework. There is considerable scope here for inter-agency collaboration, given the diversity of interventions required.

    Gender, family size and policy

    The issue of gender and its implications for the demographic transition in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America was discussed. It was noted that much of the economic literature considered the decision to have children as analogous to the decision to purchase any other durable commodity. By taking into account the concept of "different cultural settings", demographers and women's rights activists have contributed to the development of a new vision of demographic transitions

    In Asia and Latin America, significant declines in fertility rates have been recorded. In sub-Saharan Africa, this trend is much less advanced but a reduction has been recorded in several countries. Differences in female empowerment - grounded in cultural settings and the varying impact of organizations in favour of larger female education and employment - is likely to explain a significant proportion of differences in fertility declines. Female access to resources, incomes and education appear to be particularly significant. In South Asia, gender preferences are still observed in terms of investing in surviving children and other intra-household inequalities, down to selective abortion and skewed sex ratios at birth. In this sense, giving equal value to all citizens and closing the gender gap through female education and employment are among the most challenging roles of public agencies and NGOs, and thus for the role of the CSTs.

    Specifically, as concerns the relations between gender, poverty and environment, there is a knowledge gap, both at the level of CSTs and of national programs. An advocacy tool and sensitizing document on population, poverty and the environment - which takes into consideration gender and socio-cultural perspectives - should be developed through interagency collaboration. Regional exercises should be pursued in this regard.

    Final considerations

    As can be gathered from the foregoing, the linkages between population, poverty and environment are extremely complex and defy both simplistic interpretations as well as simplified interventions. Within the constraints of an institutional framework centred on the area of population, it is critical to make a realistic assessment of the possibilities for contributing to poverty alleviation and to reduction of environmental degradation, as well as of the tools available. In many instances, the work which can be carried out will basically involve supporting advocacy and education for sustainable development.

    As regards the PDS area, it would seem essential to review tools and practices in order to make them more in accord with the needs of the post-UNCED and post-Cairo era. On the one hand, more effective understanding of the practical implications of "a socio-cultural and/or a gender perspective" in PDS activities has to be promoted. On the other, the meaning of the stock phrase "integrating population into development efforts" has to be revised in order to make it more pertinent to the current development scenario. Rather than focusing on traditional concerns of "population policies", this would require a closer look into what the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the population field can contribute to development efforts of both the private and public sector.


    1. Children of poor households face constraints (e.g. health, nutrition, education) which curtail their possibilities to lift themselves out of deprivation.

    2. i.e. the destruction of common property resources in the absence of social control as each user's short-term interest is to exploit those resources to the maximum extent possible.

    3. i.e. situations where culture-based collective behaviour (e.g. on fertility) fosters poverty, although each household is willing to effect changes that would lead to a better outcome, if such changes are undertaken by all.

    4. i.e. the off-loading by a group of the externalities of its own behaviour to another group, e.g. through environmental impact or the exercise of political power.

    5. The UNDAF is a planning framework that reflects areas of programme action, common to the UN system, responding to national development priorities and needs. It enables optimizing and coordinating development efforts at the country level. The UNDAF preparation process can be initiated with a CCA, which highlights the trends related to national development goals and suggests strategic issues to be considered for UNDAF

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