Poverty-Environment Initiative Places Sustainability at the Heart of the Development Agenda

There is a growing urgency to place sustainability at the heart of the development agenda and vice versa, especially considering the fact that over a billion people live in absolute poverty, with increasing levels of inequality between countries and with the degradation and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning continuing apace. 

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty was observed this month, highlighting the need and the work of the joint UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative on linking poverty reduction and environmental protection.

Poverty Environment Initiative

With the impacts of climate change being increasingly felt by the poorest and most vulnerable people in developing countries, the net result is that if the post-Rio+20 policy process towards a new Sustainable Development Goal framework does not facilitate a change in the way environment and development “gets done”, the world risks undoing the positive economic gains made and even regressing, leaving millions of people behind and pushing vulnerable life-support mechanisms beyond planetary boundaries and possibly beyond repair.

In recognition of the fact that it is the poorest of our world who are most – and most directly – dependent upon natural resources for their livelihood, the Poverty-Environment Initiative has steadily worked at changing development and investment policies, plans and budgets, through building capacities in institutions and individuals, in order to support governments across the world to deliver pro-poor environmental outcomes which do not cost the earth.

After a pilot phase in Africa, PEI was scaled up to cover four regions during 2008-2012 and now operates in more than 20 countries, embarking on a new phase for 2013-2017 working together with governments a host of partners from the development community, civil society, private sector and research organizations.

In Malawi, PEI helped show the government exactly how much unsustainable resource use in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and tourism was costing the country: 5% of GDP, more than the annual health and education budget combined. This led to decisions taken to integrate poverty-environment outcomes into the development process and significantly increase the public budget for investments into the environment sector. PEI used economic arguments to frame the issue, revealing the country’s untapped potential of natural resources for tackling poverty. For example, soil erosion alone reduces agricultural productivity by 6% by year: if this yield was recovered, an estimated 1.88 million people would be lifted out of poverty by 2015.

In Rwanda, PEI was instrumental in the establishment by the Government of an Environmental and Climate Fund (FONERWA) charged with channeling investments into the public and private sectors for achieving sustainable improvements to both the environment and the wellbeing of the poor.

As noted by Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, “the experience and results of PEI represent policy, capacity, and institutional building blocks for an inclusive green economy, and provide both lessons and inspiration for those countries and stakeholders who strive for a prosperous, socially just, and sustainable future.”

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