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Links between the natural environment, human wellbeing and poverty

B.Vira

The Challenge

The pursuit of human wellbeing is one of the primary goals for society, and is a key focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015. There is growing recognition that a holistic understanding of human wellbeing and poverty requires the consideration of the environment and natural resources. SDG 1 aims to eradicate all forms of poverty globally, and explicitly mentions the need to provide equal access to, and control over, natural resources, and to reduce the exposure and vulnerability of the poor to climatic and environmental hazards. Despite this, environment and natural resources remain a missing dimension of widely-adopted poverty alleviation strategies and indicators, such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index.

Failing to consider environmental aspects can result in an incomplete capturing of the multiple dimensions of wellbeing and poverty, and their underlying drivers. Consequently, the identification of the poor, and an understanding of what makes them poor, risks being incomplete, thereby posing a challenge to addressing poverty adequately in development and poverty alleviation strategies. In some instances, mainstream development projects put forward in the name of poverty alleviation and development may result in environmental degradation and have negative impacts on poverty.

As a result, there is a need to better integrate environment and natural resources into assessments of multidimensional poverty and wellbeing, and to create measures of multidimensional poverty that reflect the broadened scope articulated in the SDGs.

Our solution & impact

UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre has been working with a range of partners on a portfolio of projects aiming to advance our understanding of the environment-poverty relationships conceptually, empirically and methodologically. Our work in this area can help to improve the capture and measurement of the multiple deprivations facing the poor, thus ensuring poverty and human wellbeing are addressed more holistically in research and decision-making.

Our key activities in this area include:

  • Research to better define and capture the diverse relationships between the natural environment and poverty. As part of an ESPA-funded blue skies project entitled ‘Ecosystem Services as a Missing Dimensions of Poverty’, we highlighted the often neglected ‘constituent’, or internal, role of the environment, in addition to its ‘instrumental’ role for human wellbeing and poverty.   Our findings are explored in a peer-reviewed article ‘Poorer without it?', a working paper and an online feature.

  • An exploration and application of these ideas was conducted in Rwanda in collaboration with the UNDP-UN Environment Poverty-Environment Initiative to obtain a better understanding of national perceptions of the link between the environment, poverty and wellbeing. This works also examines which aspects of the natural environment are most relevant for integration into multidimensional poverty measurements, and how best to do this. It will produce guidelines on how to integrate ENR into multidimensional poverty measurement.

  • Research in Malawi and Rwanda with the Poverty-Environment Initiative led to guidelines for fieldwork to identify environment-poverty linkages that are socially legitimate in-country. This work explored the social legitimacy for including an environmental and natural resource dimension into a multi-dimensional poverty index, by obtaining a better understanding of the perception of local communities on the role of the ENR in their wellbeing. Moreover, it strived to understand whether the role of ENR is instrumental or intrinsic to human wellbeing according to the participants.

  • Development of methods for integrating the environment and natural resources into multidimensional poverty measurements, to produce a measure that more adequately reflects poverty in all its forms, as called for in SDG 1. This is being operationalised using secondary data in Brazil as part of an ESRC-funded project for ‘Developing an Environmentally-adjusted Index for Multidimensional Poverty’

Outputs

Project Overview

Status: Ongoing

Collaborators and Funders

Collaborators: UNEP-WCMC; University of Southampton; University of Sheffield; International Institute for Sustainability; Southasia Institute for Advanced Studies

Funders: Economic and Social Research Council; UNDP-UN Environment Poverty-Environment Initiative; Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme (which is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).