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Poverty And Population Growth: Sustainable Development

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Poverty is often said to be one of the biggest problems which faces our society today. This sentiment is echoed by the millennium development goals as set out by United Nations (UN) in which the first goal is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. Poverty and population growth are said to be interrelated and the impacts of a growing population on the carrying capacity of the environment is continually highlighted. As a result, regions experiencing high levels of both poverty and population growth are often the least developed countries (LDC) of the world. In the presence of poverty and population growth the ability to achieve sustainable development has proved to be difficult in many regions of the world. The question of poverty eradication and population growth stability or decline, is one not only of resource allocation, but also human rights. The inter-relations and complexities that exist between these concepts have made the solutions to these problems difficult in many cases.This paper will briefly introduce the concepts of poverty and population growth. A discussion of the interrelations between these concepts will then follow. The paper will conclude with a look at poverty, population growth and sustainable development.

The World Bank (2000) has defined poverty as the "pronounced deprivation in wellbeing." This provides a number of measurement approaches from control over resources, access to food, shelter or education to a comparison of incomes to a benchmark figure to mention a few. The latter of these possibilities is most often used to describe poverty as it lends itself to a monetary estimate.

The World Bank view is largely a broad view of poverty, the famous economist Sen is also of this view. His Capability Approach assesses well being in terms of a persons' capabilities rather that in terms of goods or utilities. This approach distinguished from the possession of a good or utility and the ability to possess such things (1999: 74). Poverty is therefore viewed as more than a lack of income but as the lack of capabilities to function at some minimal level, as they see fit. Measuring poverty form this broader perspective is extremely difficult, and the majority of attempts to do so have been largely unsuccessful resulting in income related poverty analysis being the most common (Deaton 2006).

Some economists have argued for a more narrow definition of poverty in order to focus on the key aspects of poverty. Nolan and Whelan (1996) follow the view that poverty is an inability of an individual to participate in society, but go on further to say that this "inability to participate [is] owing to lack of resources' (1996: 188). There are a number of other differing points when defining poverty other than broad versus narrow, other definition aspects include inter alia income versus living standards, absolute versus relative poverty and expert versus public opinion of poverty. After many years of research, there is no universally accepted definition of poverty. This adds further complexities to the understanding of poverty and its related concepts. The way in which poverty is defined is crucial to understanding the causes, impacts and may yield varying policy recommendations (Lister, 2004).

In many countries the conventional method of defining poverty is via the poverty line, individuals with a monthly income below a certain level are considered to be living in poverty. This method is often referred to as the indirect definition of poverty (Ringen, 1988). The direct definition of poverty can be defined as a set of indicators or an index.

Developing countries by definition are less-prosperous countries, with lower levels of well-being. This indicates the existence of a significant level of poverty amongst these countries. Todaro and Smith (2006:810) describe developing nations as "mainly characterized by low levels of living, high rates of population growth, low income per capita, and general economic and technological dependence on developed economies."

Population growth

Natural population growth occurs when the birth rate of a country is greater than the death rate. A countries population growth rate incorporates migration with these natural increases; however this is merely a movement of people and does not contribute to the growth of population as a whole. Rising population rates becomes deemed overpopulation when the ratio of the population to the available resources becomes unsustainable.

Some of the traditional economists such as Malthus (1978) suggest that population growth naturally occurs at a greater rate than nature is able to sustain. He believes that if nothing is done to constrain this growth, population levels will eventually reach resource limits and overpopulation will occur. Although Malthus was criticised for not taking into account the impact of technology on food production, he provided the framework for many of the later works relating to population growth.

In a study conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (2007) it was established that the current consumption of resources by the human population has exceeded the available resources. "Each person on Earth now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply." This study highlights the severity of the current levels of population growth globally.

Population growth is said to be largely driven by two key components. Dasgupta (1995) broadly describes these components as, having children as ends and having children as assets. Having children as ends comprises reasons such as continuation of lineage and direct utility such as happiness and satisfying certain religious and/or social norms. The latter of these drivers, having children as assets, relates more closely with economic activity such as cultivating the lands and other food gathering activities. Children not only provide service to their parents in their old age, but also are key 'assets' that generate income for their parents. In many rural communities within LDC's much of the land used for commercial activity is common land (Heltberg, 2002). This renders parents to have larger families and utilise their children as workers on these fields. As the theory of the Tragedy of the commons goes, those who can utilise the common land fastest are able to reap the greatest utility form the land.

The concept of carrying capacity is of particular importance when discussing overpopulation. Carrying capacity can be defined as the maximum population size which an area can sustain without reducing its ability to sustain the same population in the future. This can be further be described as "a measure of the amount of renewable resources in the environment in units of the number of organisms these resources can support" (Roughgarden 1979, p. 305). The carrying capacity for humans as opposed to that of animals and plant species is far more complex. Humans not only command greater resources, but individual preferences and the existence of technology result in a varying carrying capacity. As a result the carrying capacity is based on culture as well as the level of economic development of a region (Daily and Ehrlich, 1992).

Poverty and population growth.

There is a general consensus that overpopulation is one of the key contributors to poverty in LDC's. However the directional path of relationship it is often argued as it is difficult to distinguish. This argument of whether poverty is the causal effect or the resultant effect of overpopulation is one which has plagued economists for many years. Some have argued that the relationship is circular and each impacts the other (See Ehrlich et al, 1992; Titenburg, 2000). With varying opinion of the casual and effect variables, it is often difficult to solve the problems associated with both poverty and overpopulation. However, the existence of a relationship between both the components is largely accepted.

In Africa, poverty is said to results primarily from a fast growth in population and low levels of agricultural yield. In Asia, similarly poverty is said to be largely created by high population growth rates and density combined with large landlessness (UNDP, 1998). It is therefore evident that population growth is viewed as an important contributor to poverty in a number of regions of the in a number of regions of the world.

The increased levels of population place a greater strain on the carrying capacity of land; as a result placing strain on economies in the LDC's [1] to achieve a higher rate of agricultural growth as well as obtain high standards of living (Pearce and Warford, 1993; World Bank, 1984). In a study conducted by Sachs et al. (1997, cited in Hakkert, 2007) it was revealed that in Asia, high levels of population growth is one of the factors that gives rise to increased levels of inequality and that the ability to escape poverty becomes increasingly difficult as the size of families increase.

Poverty and high population growth rates are not characteristics limited only to rural areas; there are a number of individuals in urban areas who are classified as living in poverty. However, the living circumstances as well as the impacts on sustainable development are significantly different in each area.

Poverty, population growth and sustainable development

The above discussion identified both poverty and population growth as interrelated therefore one cannot be improved without improvement in the other. When analysing these concept with respect to sustainable development, Panayotou (2000: 177) describes "population growth, poverty and environmental degradation [as being] entangled in a mutually reinforced vicious circle." Therefore once again a circular relationship is established and sustainable development cannot be achieved without dealing with both poverty and overpopulation. Sustainable development can be defined as the ability to "[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987). Globally, these inter-relationships have been widely accepted. The ICPD Programme of Action of 1994 recognised the relationship between poverty and population growth and note that demographic factors such as population growth, poverty, lack of access to resources, excessive consumption and wasteful production patterns initiate or exacerbate the problems of environmental degradation and resource depletion and therefore hamper sustainable development efforts (ECA Committee on Sustainable Development, 2001).

The impacts of population growth and poverty are often cited as related to environmental degradation (Panayotou, 2000; Daily and Ehrlich, 1992). Therefore it is important to highlight the link between environmental degradation and sustainable development. Environmental degradation can be described as "the reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet social and ecological objectives and needs" (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2004: 1). This includes the erosion of natural resources though depletion and the damage of ecosystems as well as plant and animal species. It can therefore, to some extent be viewed as the converse of sustainable development.

The environmental damage that is associated with agricultural production may be worse than expected and may be largely irreversible (Ehrlich et al, 1992). Therefore the human population has not only surpassed the current social carrying capacity but is in fact also limiting the future potential biophysical carrying capacity by depleting the non-renewable natural capital stocks (Daily and Ehrlich, 1992).

Internationally the most highlighted dangers to achieving sustainable development are often factors such as greenhouse gas emissions and desertification. These contributors are frequently associated with the industrialised or "rich" areas in the world (UNDP, 1998). However significant and damaging these factors are, a more immediate damage is emerging from LDC's which largely occur as a result of poverty (IFAD, 1995). These environmental damages include soil erosion, water pollution; overgrazing and deforestation which are often the results of greater dependence on natural resources in these regions. It has been said that these consequences are related to poverty as they are typically associated with subsistence activities which relate directly to the food security within a household (Flint, 2003).

The resultant impacts of the pressures caused by poverty and population growth on the environment are often devastating. Example of this is the continuous deforestation which occurs globally. Between 2000 and 2005, the net loss to forest areas was calculated at 7.3 million hectares annually. This coupled with a loss in diversity of many plant and animal species is a clear indication of how future generations will in fact be left significantly worse off than the current generation (FAO, 2005). In areas such as South Africa where there exists a water supply problem, semi arid regions are more susceptible to the impacts of a rising population pressure. In the North West province, these rising populations combined with an increased wealth and standard of living have been said to afflict almost every possible portion of the environment (NWDACE, 2008).

Environmental degradation in LDC's is said to occur primarily as a result of rapid population growth, poverty, limited technological development and a lack of scientific research. As a result, these factors contribute to a slow growth in agricultural product which hinders food security and inevitably delays demographic transition in these LDC's (UNCEA, 2001). The overuse and degradation of natural resources does not only impact the sustainability of the current resources, but the pressure of rising population levels will place a strain on the current food production as well as land required for non-production use such as living areas. As a result people will be forced to move into less productive, less suitable areas as well as into the natural vegetation. These areas are known as marginal lands or frontier lands. These lands also include areas that are ecologically fragile, converted forest frontier land, poor quality uplands and converted wetlands, sloped areas of land or land with poor soil quality (Barbier, 2005).

An increased population will demand an increased use of resources (areas of natural vegetation is substituted for agricultural produce) as well as pose a strain on the water systems. This does not only result in the use of resources, but also in a decrease in production as less suitable land stars to be used. As a result the income per unit of land decreases owing to the decrease quality of that land. Strains placed on water systems often lead to a decrease in water quality, this has the potential to decrease fish stocks therefore further pressurising food demands (IFAD, 1995). The cultivation of natural vegetation for residence or agricultural needs leads to an increased scarcity of fuel wood. Consequently rural dwellers often turn to biomass fuel such as animal dung and crop residues. The use of biomass fuel is a diversion of these nutrients from the soil resulting in a poorer nutritional crop yield (Malik and Nazli, 1998). The problems associated with poverty such as malnutrition and premature death are therefore often intensified.

The choices or trade-offs of switching to biomass fuels are encouraged by the poverty in these areas. Individuals are forced to make a choice between immediate food requirements and production and consumption which is environmental sustainable. The lack of assets, often non-defined property rights, limited access to financial services and other markets are some of the factors that encourage these individuals to adopt shorter, less sustainable paths (IFAD, 1995).

A rising population encourages shorter fallow periods, in addition, farmers in LDC are often unable to use inputs more efficiently based on the widespread poverty and lack of available funding. These factors can lead to a further decrease in the productivity of soil. Common property resources which are still prevalent in many LDC's can further exacerbate these conditions of land degradation (Heltberg, 2002). In such cases, where there is open access to resources there is potential for free riding and over exploitation (Harding, 1968). Depletion of these resources which are essential and which may limit the size of the populations such as fertile soil and fresh water for example, represent a decline in biophysical carrying capacity of the earth. As a result, sustainable use of resources within common land is unlikely. Rappid population growth can exacerbate these circumstances. Harding (1968) has highlighted population growth as a compelling force behind the exploitation of common resources.

All individuals rely on the functions provided by the environment, however rural populations and in particular the "rural poor have an immediate dependence on environmental resources which is not matched by urban dwellers" (Reed, 2002: 179). Consequently much of the literature on the impacts of poverty and overpopulation on sustainable developments has focussed on the rural areas within LDC's. However, these relationships can also be seen in developed countries (DC's) and urban areas especially with respect to increases in population growth and their impact on sustainable development. Historically, many cities have originated in areas of high agricultural use as a result much of the new development occurs on rich farmland (Ehrlich et al., 1992). Rising population pressure on infrastructure encourages these new developments which venture further into the surrounding natural landscape. The problems experienced in DC's are significantly different to those experienced in LDC's in that the high levels of industrialization experienced in many DC's has in many cases lead to much industrial pollution. As population levels increase, the demand for resources and in particular energy will increase as well. It can be said that the "central element in [achieving] urban environmental sustainability is the adoption of appropriate energy policies, since most environmental externalities are directly or indirectly related to energy use" (Nijkamp and Pepping, 1998: 1481). This highlights the need for cleaner more sustainable options within the energy field to be established in the wake of continual demands from a rising population level. The impacts of increased energy consumption in terms of greenhouse gas emissions combined with deforestation for the expansion of cities can have a dramatic impact on the environment. Overpopulation within urban environments not only increase the demand for resources, but when this is coupled with poverty, the creation of slums and informal sectors can place a further strain on amenities that can threaten the urban systems and may result in environmental degradation.

Stemming from Malthus' initial theory of population growth and latter studies that followed, it is evident that initiatives in technology, socio-economic organization and consumption levels have not achieved sustainability for the current population (Daily an Ehrlich, 1992). Technology may increase the food production, but this still relies on the non-renewable natural resources. Lipton (1997) identifies that technology generated within the agricultural sector is largely exogenous in most LDC's. This is an example of literature in the 1970s that argued that technological developments are generally derived in the capital abundant labour scarce DC and generally developed based on the factor endowments of these countries (Malik and Nazli, 1998). Therefore LDC's which largely lack man-made capital are unlikely to benefit from such technological developments.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been highlighted as one of the regions in which the relationship between high population growth rates and insufficient development to meet the needs of this larger population has been clearly evident. African Governments have in most cases been unable to meet the investments required to satisfy increasing needs of a larger population (UNECA, 2001). The efforts to meet these needs have been plagued by a poor economic climate and insufficient funding. For sustainable development to occur; the population growth rate should not exceed the GDP growth rate, in many of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa this has not been the case (Goodwin et al., 2008).

Economic growth as a means to alleviate poverty as well as achieve sustainable development does not always yield the expected outcomes. Everything But Arms, an initiative of the EU which aims to reduce the burden of poverty by aiding the integration of LDC'S into the global economy in a manner which is environmentally responsible has attracted some criticism. This initiative along with other similar initiative are said to moderately reduce poverty and instead place a greater stress on weak economies (Flint, 2003). The key to achieving an alleviation of poverty and achieve sustainable development through economic growth will only occur provided the economic growth itself is sustainable. Adopting exporting activities as a means of generating income in general will not guarantee the desired outcome. Some programmes encourage the planting of 'cash crops' as opposed to crops for subsistence. These 'cash crops' often result in mono-cropping. From a sustainability perspective this is rather dangerous. Mono-cropping which involves the use of a single strain or genetic makeup, runs the risks of threatening the entire harvest of crops if disease is to set in (Flint, 2003).

LDC's as compared to DC's are more prone to unsustainable development based on their governing policies. Government systems in LDC are often plagued with corruption, mismanagement and lack of regulation. According to Parasuraman et al. (2003: 33) "corrupt and arbitrary governance constitutes a significant factor that defines and contributes to the various other dimensions of poverty." As a result, even if property rights were to be enforced in outlying areas as a means to curb frontier development and promote sustainable development, without a well functioning government to enforce such systems these property rights are unlikely to be effective.

There is undoubtedly the need to address poverty issues and curtail population growth to some extent. However, policies implemented to address these problems do not necessarily account for the attainment of sustainable development. Sustainable resource usage and the environment as a whole is "seldom treated as a central part of the equation...the World Bank's perspective [is that] the environment is viewed as a peripheral issue in poverty alleviation perhaps even a luxury" (Reed, 2002). When poverty is seen in term of its broader definition, views such as the above mentioned cannot fully achieve poverty alleviation. The welfare of individuals in many cases is directly related to the benefit which they are able to receive from the environment, therefore sustainable practices are imperative.


The existence of poverty and rapid population growth has been seen in many LDC's. These concepts have largely been accepted as being interrelated however these relationships have proved to be highly complex therefore addressing these problems have been difficult globally. Sustainable development practices within areas of poverty and levels of high population growth have historically been poor. Poor rural areas often engage in overgrazing, water pollution and soil erosion. An increase in population levels are expected to exacerbate these areas forcing the movement into less productive, lesser quality marginal lands. Urban areas, although said to not have an immediate dependence on resources to suffer from practices which do not encourage sustainable development especially with respect to overpopulation. Efforts to combat the 'vicious circle' of poverty, rising population growth and environmental degradation are said to require multidisciplinary policies in all sectors. These policies need to be carefully established taking account of the need to achieving sustainable development if the resourced that are available for future generations are to be preserve.

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