Two contradictory trends determine the distribution of world resources as we prepare to cross the threshold of the third millennium.
On the one hand, the globalization of the economy which to with its transnational flow of capital, products, information and men, is tracing out a new geography characterised by ever-increasing interrelations and interdependence on a planetary scale.
Globalization and Polarization
One needs only to remember:
- the formation of a single world financial market whose telecommunication network deals with vast sums of capital twenty four hours a day: every day, an average of $1,300 billion circulate on the international monetary market alone, equivalent to twice the total monetary reserves of the industrialized countries
- the increasing role of transnational corporations, 90% of which are based in North America, Western Europe and Japan, operating on a multinational scale in every field of the economy via foreign affiliates and foreign direct investments and managing more than three quarters of the imports and exports of the main industrialized countries together with the most important world trade channels; some of them have a yearly turnover that is higher than the gross national product of entire countries; to name an example, the oil company Exxon’s revenue is twice the amount of Venezuela’s gross national product, despite the latter is an oil- producing country.
- the strong growth of direct foreign investments, whose annual stock has increased twentyfold during the last thirty years;
- the spread of integrated international production by means of which an increasing number of products are made up of parts fabricated in various countries and subsequently assembled;
- the swift development of telecommunications, which have enabled company head offices, industrial plants and markets situated in distant areas to be connected in real time, and likewise transport systems, facilitating greater circulation of goods;
- the progressive increase of world trade, whose annual rate has overtaken the production rate.
On the other hand, while the income produced in the world is obtained by the use of human and material resources that are crossing frontiers more and more, creating a growing interdependence between one region and another and a country and another, its distribution is characterised by increasing inequalities.
“The world ha become more polarized and the gulf between the poor and the rich has widened even further,” documents the Human Development Report 1996.
“The poorest 20% of the world’s people saw their share of global income decline from 2.3% to 1.4% in the past 30 years; meanwhile, the share of the richest 20% rose from 70% to 85%. That doubled the ratio of the shares of the richest and the poorest: from 30:1 to 60:1”.
These widening disparities, concludes the report, are creating “two worlds, ever more polarized”.
The division line between the “two worlds” does not simply pass through the more developed regions (North) and the less developed ones (South), but crosses every country creating, especially in the latter lacerating, inequalities. According to data provided by the World Bank, in Brasil the richest 20% of the population possesses 67.5% of the national income, while 60% of the population has less than 16%.
The problem of poverty has worsened, particularly in less developed areas.
The percentage of the population living in conditions of absolute poverty has risen in Sub-Saharan Africa where it reached 55% at the beginning of the 1990s, and in Latin America and the Caribbean where it has risen to almost 30%. In Southern Asia it has dropped slightly, remaining nevertheless around 60%. Altogether, the number of people living in conditions of absolute poverty has risen to one and a half billion. To this must be added an unspecified number of people that certainly beat the billion mark and who, living in a state of harsh destitution, are classified as being poor.
Not even the most developed regions are free from this problem: in the industrialized countries of the OECD, the number of people living just below the poverty line is more than 100 million and continues to rise. This growing polarization between wealth and poverty not only raises the question of mere social justice, but also the key question that influences every aspect of human life either directly or indirectly, including the relationship between man and his environment on a planetary scale.
Interaction between Socioeconomic and Environmental Factors in the Poverty – Environmental Deterioration Cycle.
An unequal distribution of resources provokes a chain reaction of socioeconomic and environmental effects.This is particular evident in the poverty-environmental deterioration cycle which is typical of the rural areas of the less developed regions:
1) Unequal Distribution of Land, Production Methods and Agricultural Credit
The structure of land ownership in the less developed regions is strongly concentrated in large estates and large farms: in countries like Brazil, India, Ghana and Tunisia 60-90% of the land belongs to 20 % of the richest families. Within this social layer there is a further concentration. This is all to the detriment of small farmers, who, as well as having limited land with poor-quality soil, are to a great degree excluded from government benefits, from agricultural credit, from commercial services and from modern production methods.
2) Agricultural Structure that Favours Monoculture and other Products for Export
A consequence of the concentration of land in large estates and farms is that agricultural production favours cash crops, the large-scale exploitation of forests and the farming of products for exportation rather than production of foodstuffs to satisfy internal needs.
3) Rural Poverty
The primary cause of rural poverty is the unequal distribution of land, production methods and agricultural credit. All of this is to the detriment of small-scale farmers, many of whom, having limited and poor quality soil or even loosing what they had altogether, join with the masses of labourers in search of a job. They are paid very little by the big landowners and, running into debt, they are sometimes reduced what could be defined slaves. Rural poverty generates, in its turn, a whole series of consequences.
4) Greater Demographic Growth
The condition of poverty usually implies a greater average number of offspring per woman. High numbers of children in the poorest families, especially in rural areas, is in actual fact a question of necessity which derives from the economy of subsistence. In areas where collecting a faggot of wood or drawing a bucket of water implies hours of tiring walk, where tilling stony ground in time for sowing requires months of hard toil, a greater number of children means a greater chance of survival for the family nucleus. However, an excessive demographic growth increases the pressure on the already scanty natural resources and ends up by worsening the conditions of the poor.
Demographic pressure contributes to the destruction of forests, together with the poverty that compels large numbers of the population to cut down trees and shrubs to obtain firewood. Wood represents the only or main fuel for 2 billion inhabitants of the less developed regions who can neither afford to buy expensive fossil fuels nor have other kinds of energy available: in countries like Nepal, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Nigeria, wood represents 80-95% of energy consumption.
At the same time, the agricultural structure based on large estates that produce for exportation leads to the destruction of vast areas of tropical forests, either to obtain precious wood or cellulose, or to transform them into grazing land.
6) Water Shortage
Rapid demographic growth and deforestation accentuate water shortages which are also worsened by the fact that modern irrigation systems are concentrated in the large estates.
The majority of small farmers, due to their poverty, have insufficient systems that lose most of the water destined for the crops. It has been calculated that in the less developed regions, where agriculture absorbs more than 85% of the total use of water, 55% of it is actually lost.
Deforestation and water shortages together with overpopulation provoke serious soil degradation that the rural communities cannot kerb due to the lack of adequate means. Another important factor is that the small farmers have to use marginal land both for agriculture and for breeding, land that is more subject to erosion, the best being monopolized by large farms and estates. In Sahel, the expansion of cash crops which are mostly destined for exportation, like peanuts in Nigeria and Sudan and cotton in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, have concentrated breeding and agriculture for food products in arid areas characterized by a fragile ecosystem and drought. They are inhabited by poor rural populations who, needing more food to meet with demographic growth, exploit the land to the full, thus accelerating soil degradation. This is one of the main causes of the soil degradation process which, in 50 years, has transformed into desert about 650,000 km2 of once productive lands, an area equivalent to twice the surface of Italy.
8) Decline of Cultivated Surface per Head
Soil degradation, hand in hand with strong population growth, is one of the causes of the decline of cultivated surface per head. Another important factor that contributes to the latter is that most of the better-quality land is monopolized by large farms and estates.
9) Urban Migration
Deprived of land and of the bare essentials for sustenance as a result of the above-mentioned factors, great population masses move to the cities in search of better living conditions. This provokes an exponential growth of the urban population: In the mid-90s, the figure had reached about 1.7 billion, almost twice that of more developed regions; in the year 2000 it will probably go past the 2 billion mark and, in 2015, 3 billion, which corresponds to over 50% of the entire population.
10) Urban Poverty
The urban migration of great population masses from rural areas provokes an overflow of poverty from rural to urban areas, with a consequential deterioration of living conditions in the latter. If current trends continue, the problem of urban trends continue, the problem of urban poverty in less developed regions, which is already very serious, will become explosive in the next decades.
One of the most disastrous effects of rural and urban poverty is chronic denutrition[i], which afflicts over 800 million inhabitants from less developed areas, and malnutrition which effects over 2 billion: the fundamental cause of denutrition[i] and malnutrition is not the shortage of food but the fact that the poor have not got the possibility to either produce or buy sufficient food.
12) Drop in the Food
Another factor that helps create denutrition[i] and malnutrition is the drop in the food self-sufficiency index. In less developed regions, the value of agricultural exports is higher than imports (except in North Africa and Middle East). But, due to, the agricultural structure that favours production destined for exportation rather than to meet internal feeding needs, together with other factors like demographic growth and soil degradation, a drop in or stagnation of food production per head have been recorded in most of the less developed areas. Another factor is that large numbers of the population migrate from rural to urban areas giving up the production of foodstuffs.
13) Growth of Food Imports
The drop in food self-sufficiency together with the necessity to reduce denutrition and malnutrition determine the rise in the importation of foodstuffs. It has been forecasted that the importation of cereals on behalf of the less developed countries will increase from 90 million tons in 1990 to well over 160 million in the year 2010.
14) Rise in Foreign Debt
The growth of food imports helps increase the foreign debt of many countries, particularly in the ones that have favoured cash crops and other products with foreign targets. The foreign debt of the less developed regions, which has reached $1,500 billion, can be blamed on the following: firstly, the dramatic drop in the price of primary agricultural products and minerals exported by these countries on to the world markets which are controlled by transnational corporations; secondly, the rise in bank interest rates for international loans.
15) Cut in Public Expenditure
The rise in foreign debt leads in many cases to cuts in public spending which highlights both rural and urban poverty; it also reduces government intervention to control the price of foodstuffs on the home market, causing more famine and malnutrition. At the same time, public spending cuts determine a reduction in already few and far between government subsidies to the poor living in rural areas, highlighting inequalities as far as land distribution, production methods and agricultural credit are concerned (to the detriment of small farmers) and subsequently causing a feedback effect which keeps the cycle going.
16) Spread of Infective and Parasitary Diseases
Famine and malnutrition together with contaminated water, lack of sanitation facilities and health assistance are the main causes of the spread of infective and parasitary[ii] diseases which provoke the death of over 16 million people annually; the situation has got much worse in many countries as a result of cuts in public spending. The spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa has become particularly worrying, where the number of people infected by HIV in 1995 was over 11 million; likewise, in southern and south-western Asia the HIV population has increased twofold in a period of two years to 3 million. In these areas and in Latin America (where the number of people infected by HIV was more than 1,5 million) the disease appears to be out of control. Now that it has become pandemic, its spread to less developed areas currently represents a threat to the more developed ones, where it’s kept relatively under control.
17) Outbreak of Conflict
Rural and urban poverty, mass unemployment, marked inequalities between privileged elites and the poor majority, denial of human rights to entire populations or national minorities, environmental degradation and lack of resources represent an explosive cocktail ready to spark off tension and conflict, often armed. These conflicts, often triggered by a clash between internal groups of power, exasperate interethnic and interreligious rivalries to such an extent that cause civil wars and outright genocide; in many cases the interests of great powers and transnational corporations play a significant role in these.
18) Rise in Migratory Flow
The deterioration of the social and environmental situation, often worsened by war, pushes more and more people to leave their own countries: a massive migratory flow is therefore caused, which, from the less developed areas, heads for the countries that are more developed from an economic point of view. There are currently in the world more than 100 million international migrants, to which must be added a further 26 million refugees that are compelled to leave their own countries. This number is bound to increase. What’s happening in Africa is proof of this: while a growing mass of unemployed and a growing mass of unemployed and under-employed North Africans are trying to find an outlet in Europe, further migratory waves rise from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa.
Need for a Global Developement Strategy
The example reported above is proof that, in a world that’s becoming increasingly interdependent, an imbalance in part of it provokes, like an earthquake, a series of concentric waves that propagate over a vast radius. It thus happens that an act of shortsighted selfishness, comparable to what occurs in less developed regions where the land and production means are concentrated in few hands, is to the detriment not only of small farmers but to the majority of the population and at the same time causes serious consequences at an international level (with reference to SDGS Goal 8). This example can be applied to other phenomena: we only have to think about the damage to the climate and environment that polluting fuels used by a relatively limited number of industrialised countries cause on a planetary scale.
It is enough to remember that, in spite of the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s money was still spent on weapons, including nuclear ones that are capable of wiping out the whole human race from the face of the earth. The figure was around 800 billion dollars a year, an amount that was equivalent to the income of about half of the world’s poor population. Here we are dealing with the greatest waste of resources in history: it would be enough to save how much is spent in the world in half a day for military purposes – over a billion dollars – to double the annual budget of the World Health Organization. Altogether the world possesses human and material resources, scientific knowledge and technological capacities which, if they are used correctly, could reduce socioeconomic gaps and imbalance in man’s relationship with his environment.
If this doesn’t take place, or if it takes place in a limited way, this is because, while the various phenomena are more and more linked creating an objective interdependence on a planetary scale, on the other hand the use of human and material resources in the majority of cases is determined by sectorial interests and visions. All this leads us to favour a solution to a problem to the detriment of another one, the immediate advantage rather than a long-lasting one, the interest of restricted groups rather than the well-being of collectivity, thus creating lacerating social inequalities and a great waste of human and material resources. The majority of the world population, especially from less developed areas, is thus excluded from the benefits of economic growth, not having the necessary instruments to compete in a market economy that has taken on global dimensions. On the other hand, it is subject to negative relapses (either direct or indirect) of a world market that is mainly controlled by transnational corporations: for example through depreciation of the primary materials exported (up against a continuous rise in the prices of industrial products imported), high interest rates on international loans, foreign debt and the consequent cuts in productive investment and social expenditure that are included in the programme of social adjustment.
The principle of competitiveness that is at the basis of the market economy is in this way translated into the principle of exclusion of the majority of the world’s population. At the same time it becomes more and more urgent to find concrete solutions to the vital problems of the everyday world: how to contain the demographic explosion of the less developed regions, how to stop degradation of the environment and of natural resources, how to feed a world population that in thirty years will total 8 billion, how to build a new energy system as an alternative to exhausting and polluting sources, reduce and wipe out poverty and socioeconomic imbalances, carry out urbanization that respects the quality of both life and the environment. The solution to these and other problems requires a whole series of economic policies. But how can a market economy, free from any kind of orientation mechanism, operate differently to the fundamental economic law that regulates it, namely that of investing where higher profits are obtained. How can such an economy autonomously direct its investments towards objectives, like the reduction and elimination of poverty, that don’t go hand in hand with the maximalization[iii] of profit that every private company seeks to obtain? Consequently, a global strategy of development, based not only on an ethical reason but on a scientific one too, is needed.
In other words: can there be such thing as a system that, leaving room for free economic initiative, is at the same time able to (without resorting to rigid centralization) prevent it from going over the limits which damage collectivity and their interests in the long run, and move towards objectives that answer the global and long-term interests of humancollectivity? The infrastructures that have developed thanks to the globalization of the economy, such as integrated international production, computer and telecommunication networks, modern technology, could be used efficiently to improve the socioeconomic situation of the less developed regions, especially as far as the following are concerned: health, education, agriculture and food, reforestation and soil conservation, biotechnologies, new energy sources, transport, research and development of technology that best suits the individual needs of the country. This would allow for the creation of millions of jobs and widen the internal market with positive ripple concerning the unemployment of the more developed regions too; it would slow down population growth, raising the quality of life and improving the relationship between population, environment and resources; it would induce a drop in internal migratory fluxes and the consequent chaotic urban migration and at the same time international migratory streams towards industrialized countries. In such a way economic profit would coincide with social profit. The achievement of such objectives can only but occur in the framework of a global development strategy, that still needs forming, even if its fundamental outlines have already been traced. For development to respond to the global long-term interests of the human race it needs:
- to put all people and individuals in a position of being creators and position of being creators and beneficiaries;
- to satisfy the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations.
This is the fundamental question, in theory and in practice, to which the future of human development is linked. Not only the possibility of human development but the survival of the human race depends on how capable homo sapiens is of administering in the coming century this little planet where, billions of years ago, life was born.
- References follow the criteria of the author
- References to institutional sources are linked in the text by the editor
- Other references and notes are given in roman numeral