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Vandana Shiva--Two Myths That Keep the World Poor

Web Note: Vandana Shiva is on the Policy Advisory Board of the Organic
Consumers Association.

Two myths that keep the world poor
Vandana Shiva
This article appeared in Ode issue: 28

Global poverty is a hot topic right now. But anyone serious about ending it
needs to understand the true causes, argues Indian environmentalist Vandana

From rock singer Bob Geldof to UK politician Gordon Brown, the world
suddenly seems to be full of high-profile people with their own plans to end
poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, however, is not a simply a do-gooder but one of the
world¹s leading economists, head of the Earth Institute and in charge of a
UN panel set up to promote rapid development. So when he launched his book
The End of Poverty, people everywhere took notice. Time magazine even made
it into a cover story.

But, there is a problem with Sachs' how-to-end poverty prescriptions. He
simply doesn't understand where poverty comes from. He seems to view it as
the original sin. "A few generations ago, almost everybody was poor," he
writes, then adding: "The Industrial Revolution led to new riches, but much
of the world was left far behind."

This is a totally false history of poverty. The poor are not those who have
been "left behind"; they are the ones who have been robbed. The wealth
accumulated by Europe and North America are largely based on riches taken
from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Without the destruction of India's rich
textile industry, without the takeover of the spice trade, without the
genocide of the native American tribes, without African slavery, the
Industrial Revolution would not have resulted in new riches for Europe or
North America. It was this violent takeover of Third World resources and
markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the South.

Two of the great economic myths of our time allow people to deny this
intimate link, and spread misconceptions about what poverty is.
First, the destruction of nature and of people's ability to look after
themselves are blamed not on industrial growth and economic colonialism, but
on poor people themselves. Poverty, it is stated, causes environmental
destruction. The disease is then offered as a cure: further economic growth
is supposed to solve the very problems of poverty and ecological decline
that it gave rise to in the first place. This is the message at the heart of
Sachs¹ analysis.

The second myth is an assumption that if you consume what you produce, you
do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own
food, and do not sell it, then it doesn't contribute to GDP, and therefore
does not contribute towards "growth".

People are perceived as "poor" if they eat food they have grown rather than
commercially distributed junk foods sold by global agri-business. They are
seen as poor if they live in self-built housing made from ecologically
well-adapted materials like bamboo and mud rather than in cinder block or
cement houses. They are seen as poor if they wear garments manufactured from
handmade natural fibres rather than synthetics.

Yet sustenance living, which the wealthy West perceives as poverty, does not
necessarily mean a low quality of life. On the contrary, by their very
nature economies based on sustenance ensure a high quality of life measured
in terms of access to good food and water, opportunities for sustainable
livelihoods, robust social and cultural identity, and a sense of
meaning in people's lives . Because these poor don't share in the perceived
benefits of economic growth, however, they are portrayed as those "left

This false distinction between the factors that create affluence and those
that create poverty is at the core of Sachs' analysis. And because of this,
his prescriptions will aggravate and deepen poverty instead of ending it.
Modern concepts of economic development, which Sachs sees as the "cure" for
poverty, have been in place for only a tiny portion of human history. For
centuries, the principles of sustenance allowed societies all over the
planet to survive and even thrive. Limits in nature were respected in these
societies and guided the limits of human consumption. When society's
relationship with nature is based on sustenance, nature exists as a form of
common wealth. It is redefined as a "resource" only when profit becomes the
organising principle of society and sets off a financial imperative for the
development and destruction of these resources for the market.

However much we choose to forget or deny it, all people in all societies
still depend on nature. Without clean water, fertile soils and genetic
diversity, human survival is not possible. Today, economic development is
destroying these onetime commons, resulting in the creation of a new
contradiction: development deprives the very people it professes to help of
their traditional land and means of sustenance, forcing them to survive in
an increasingly eroded natural world.

A system like the economic growth model we know today creates trillions of
dollars of super profits for corporations while condemning billions of
people to poverty. Poverty is not, as Sachs suggests, an initial state of
human progress from which to escape. It is a final state people fall into
when one-sided development destroys the ecological and social systems that
have maintained the life, health and sustenance of people and the planet for
ages. The reality is that people do not die for lack of income. They die for
lack of access to the wealth of the commons. Here, too, Sachs is wrong when
he says: "In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor their lives are
in danger." The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in
the Himalayas, peasants anywhere whose land has not been appropriated and
whose water and biodiversity have not been destroyed by debt-creating
industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they earn less
than a dollar a day.

On the other hand, people are poor if they have to purchase their basic
needs at high prices no matter how much income they make. Take the case of
India. Because of cheap food and fibre being dumped by developed nations
and lessened trade protections enacted by the government, farm prices in
India are tumbling, which means that the country¹s peasants are losing $26
billion U.S. each year. Unable to survive under these new economic
conditions, many peasants are now poverty-stricken and thousands commit
suicide each year. Elsewhere in the world, drinking water is privatised so
that corporations can now profit to the tune of $1 trillion U.S. a year by
selling an essential resource to the poor that was once free. And the $50
billion U.S. of "aid" trickling North to South is but a tenth of the $500
billion being sucked in the other direction due to interest payments and
other unjust mechanisms in the global economy imposed by the World Bank and
the IMF.

If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to be serious about ending
the systems that create poverty by robbing the poor of their common wealth,
livelihoods and incomes. Before we can make poverty history, we need to get
the history of poverty right. It¹s not about how much wealthy nations can
give, so much as how much less they can take.

Taken and adapted with kind permission from The Ecologist (July/August
2005), a British monthly devoted to discussion of environmental issues,
international politics and globalization. More information: The Ecologist,
Unit 18 Chelsea Wharf, 15 Lots Road, London, SW10 0XJ, England,,

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist and prominent Indian environmental
activist. She founded Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation
and farmers' rights. She directs the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology and Natural Resource Policy. Her most recent books are Biopiracy:
The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge and Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the
Global Food Supply.