Building on the Wealth of the Poor

By Gokarran Sukhdeo and Gary Girdhari

It was Marx who said that philosophers in the past had only interpreted the world; few had sought to change it.

Further, according to Marx, in all productive systems throughout history, both the relationship to the means of production and the relations of production have been antagonistic. In other words, those who produce the goods and services (labor) have no ownership to it, and those who own the capital have always regarded labor as another commodity to own, manipulate and exploit.

These relationships have obviously not become less antagonistic since the time of Marx, and certainly more exploitative and explosive since the demise of the Cold War. Transnational corporations have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the Cold War, and to take advantage of the marketization of the global economy. Their modus operandi of profit maximization, with no respect for national governments or peoples or the environment, are leaving a nasty trail of global economic poverty and other related problems – death, diseases, social unrest… and the most alarming of them – destruction of the sustainer of life, the eco-system.

Is there a solution to this global impoverishment and the increasing marginalization of the masses from the means of production? Marx’s solution was obviously too revolutionary, packed with “isms”, and it threw the world into two confronting giants. In their struggle to prove whose “ism” was better, they became oblivious of the masses – the very laboring class, the people whose welfare they both originally started out to improve. But more importantly, in their confrontation, not only the masses became the victim, but also the sustainer of all wealth – the earth.

Dr. Naresh Singh’s Sustainable Livelihoods is offering a solution that does not advocate any ideological change but works with and within any of the “isms”. It is basically about working with small groups within any nation to develop whatever economic activity they are engaged in, that is marginally subsistent, into something more productive, viable and sustainable in the long run to both the group and the eco-system in which economic activity is based.

The idea of Sustainable Development emerged from the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, 1992, and is becoming increasingly acceptable as a model not only to alleviate poverty, but also to conserve natural resources, and instill a sense of obligation to future generations.

The model of sustainability is derived from a new collaboration between both Social and Natural Scientists. Previous models, most of which were developed by Social Scientist, namely, neo-classical economists, and thrust upon developing nations, focused exclusively on the study of market exchanges, using monetary value as the only scale of valuation. In so doing two great errors were committed in that:

1. To a great extent there tended to be a neglect of the bio-physical dimensions of economic activity;
2. The models handed down often failed to differentiate between wants and needs, and very often these wants and needs were determined, not from an expression from the subject population, but from external observers.

Understanding the current livelihood activities, assets and entitlements of the community is the starting point from which the paradigm of sustainability is constructed. By livelihood activities is meant any work in the formal or informal sectors. Assets include all aspects of human capital; social capital such as governance structure, community support, decision-making ability, and culture; natural capital such as land water, air and forestry; and human-made capital such as buildings, roads, machinery, crops and livestock. By entitlements is meant such things as constitutional rights, technical support, social security and insurance. SL is therefore about bringing the relevant factors together in the right mix, and putting them to work. Basically stated, since these assets are all existent in or disposed to the community, it is the community that determines what is to be developed, and this, along with whatever needed external inputs of technical and financial support, will “ignite a self-propelled engine of sustainable human-centered development.” Because these assets are existent or disposed to the community, Singh subtitles his book, “Building on the Wealth of the Poor”.

Take the following case scenario:

The province of Tulear in Southern Madagascar is a parched, waterless wasteland. In order to obtain water, the people in the coastal village of Beheloka (whose main occupation is fishing) dig small pits in the sand. The water they find, however, is only slightly less brackish than the water available from the shallow wells, and only a little less likely to cause disease.

An outsider would assume that the people of Tulear Province need access to potable water. But when the men, women and fishermen of the village discussed their livelihoods, what they have, what they use, and how they make their living, they revealed a different priority. Counter-intuitive to the expectations of outsiders, the people did not identify water as a problem.

Instead, they said that if they could catch and sell more fish, their water problem would be solved, because they could buy water from five kilometers away.

“Suppose we had given them water,” says UNDP Assistant Representative Lalao Ramanarivo, “then what? As outsiders, we couldn’t see it at first, but water would not have strengthened their livelihoods. What they really wanted was to learn how to catch more fish, how to process the fish to make it more commercially attractive, how to market the fish more profitably. You can see the logic of their thinking. With an increase in income, not only would they be able to buy water; they’d be able to do many other things as well. This is the basis for sustainable livelihoods.”

It is going back to basics. Like the ancient Chinese saying, “Give a man a fish and you give him a meal. Teach him to fish and you give him a livelihood.”

What globalization is doing to third world countries is creating a tremendous dependency on Western goods, services, life-styles, etc. that is effectively spiraling the syndrome of poverty. Sustainable Livelihood is returning not only an economic independence to them, but also a cultural independence, including the creative exploration of means to exploit indigenous resources. It is a holistic approach that integrates community participation with eco-friendly science and technology, along with other subsidiary financial investment and governmental services. The end result is community empowerment and involvement in their own economic development, thus an alleviation of community poverty.

Coming out of this book is not only a workable model for balanced ecological and economic development, but also a serious question on the need for the social and natural sciences to come down from their theoretical utopias, and, having re-examined their theoretical boundaries that have historically separated them, start to collaborate more meaningfully in producing practical solutions for common problems facing society. The model also seriously challenges Western industrial societies to re-examine their relations to the productive forces and adopt a path of development that is more eco-friendly. But most importantly, Sustainable Livelihood may well be the answer to the culture of globalization that is sweeping the world. However, while Singh’s Sustainable Livelihoods may be construed by some as Marxist in orientation, an analyst would readily observe that the model actually works with and within any of the prevailing economic or political systems.

The model, of course, is not without limitations. First and foremost the model assumes the existence of a level of democracy that grants equal rights and equal access to all the assets previously defined in the model. Secondly, economies whose course of “development” is dictated by international lending agencies would encounter some resistance to efforts that aim at community and national economic independence. Often this resistance is manifested, not directly by the international lending agencies, but by a complacency or laissez faire attitude of governments themselves whose responsibility it is to create favorable conditions to enable the target groups to have easier access to loans, land and other services that would support sustainability. Thirdly, the model may also not flourish in economies that are totally open, as some amount of protection is usually required in the initial stages of any project. Fourthly, in “barrel economies” such as Guyana, where a great portion of the population, particularly in Government services, is more interested in jobs, not work, and whose westernized lifestyles are sustained by external handouts, people may not be readily receptive to efforts to make them self-reliant. And finally, there is a danger (or what might be considered a danger) in sustainability emerging as a political model in direct confrontation with the status quo.

Meet Dr. Naresh Singh

Dr. Naresh Singh was born, second of eleven children, in Triumph, East Coast Demerara, Guyana. Early schooling was at Beterverwagting Government School, Central High School and St. Stanislaus High School in Guyana. Having gaining an ‘open entrance scholarship’, he enrolled at the University of Guyana (1970) where he received his Bachelors Degree majoring in Chemistry (1974).

Dr. Singh was a Teacher at Central High and Saints prior to taking a relatively lucrative appointment as a Chemical Sales Representative with Shell Antilles (1975-1977).

In 1977, he received a Commonwealth Scholarship tenable in India (and Canada). [As a sidebar story, he was influenced to opt for India. His father wanted to look for his roots which, after some apprehension with long lost relatives, he did find in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh.] He studied Soil Science/Agricultural Chemistry, gaining the MSc. (1979) which dealt with “How pesticide behave in tropical environment”.

Upon returning to Guyana he worked at the Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation as R & Manager under Dr. Leslie Chin (1979-1982).

Singh pursued and obtained a PhD degree, researching “The Physico-Chemical Behavior of Pesticides in Different [Tropical] Eco-Systems”, (in this case citrus, coffee and coconut). Upon graduating he conducted research for the Science Research Council of Jamaica. He worked with CEHI St. Lucia (CARICOM) first as Senior Scientist (1986), then as Executive Director (1990-1993). In 1993 Naresh Singh joined the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada where his research interest shifted to study policy thinking. He became the Program Director for Poverty and Empowerment – which focused on understanding how poor people interact with their environment (1993-1996). In 1996 Naresh Singh was invited by the UNDP as an Advisor on Poverty and Sustainable Livelihood, and in June 2001 became a Consultant.

Dr. Singh also held several academic positions, namely Adjunct Professor, Boston University in the MPH program, 1993, Canada Trust Visiting Professor at the University of Waterloo, 2001, Adjunct Professor at the University of Manitoba, Visiting Faculty at CUNY in International relations, Visiting Fellow at the University of Guelph Ontario Agricultural College, Lecturer at the University of Guyana, Natural Sciences and Agriculture, Lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

Naresh has worked in over forty countries around the world advocating the model of Sustainable Livelihoods. He has published six books, many book chapters and numerous articles related to the environment, poverty and sustainable livelihoods.

Sustainable Livelihoods may be obtained from Barnes and Noble, or from the publisher, Kumarian Press, Inc. 1294 Blue Hills Avenue, Bloomfield, CT 06002, USA.