DESA News Vol. 13, No. 02 February 2009


Reclaiming the earthReclaiming the earth

A renewed commitment to sustainable agriculture and rural development is essential to relieve the world from hunger and poverty

Fourteen years ago, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) affirmed the urgency of advancing sustainable agriculture and rural development. Shortly thereafter, the World Food Summit of 1996 set the goal of halving the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015. Hunger was a serious concern then and it remains one today.

As CSD prepares for its 17th session in May of this year, countries are reaffirming their commitment to agriculture and rural development, as well as to the themes of land, drought, desertification and Africa, in tackling the challenges of the new millennium: global food price volatility, poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

CSD-17 chairperson Gerda Verburg, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Netherlands, believes it is high time to deliver concrete measures and actions. “The world has been shaken by social tensions that have demonstrated that food insecurity is an irrefutable reality,” she states. “It is a new reality to which global warming and declining natural resources are now adding an unprecedented sense of urgency.”

Behind the food crisis lurks a crisis of sustainable development. The world’s people, particularly those in rich countries, are using far more of our natural resources than our planet can regenerate. All nations will have to face these dilemmas, including the dilemma of competing claims for food and fuel, and not least of all, the competing claims on water. Indeed, the time is right, if not overdue, to take back the lands that have been left to waste and destruction. For many centuries, agriculture guaranteed abundance on our tables and in our pantries. Nonetheless, the world has unwisely neglected agriculture, particularly in recent years.

Yet the global food crisis which could lead to an additional 44 million malnourished people this year is not merely a crisis of crops. “It epitomizes the failure of the international community on several inter-related fronts,” explains DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Sha Zukang. “As global financial credit dries up, our natural capital – our life-supporting ecosystems – are under unprecedented assault from unsustainable consumption and production.”

This continuing erosion of the natural stocks of wealth poses a challenge to the global development agenda as daunting and urgent as the financial crisis. As a global community, we have not taken good care of the land and water that has nurtured our civilization. We have not invested sufficiently in agriculture. And we have failed to empower women, who more often than not, are the farmers who put meals on the tables.

With a significant portion of the world’s poor depending on agriculture as the main source of income as well as a motor for economic development in rural areas, agriculture remains a pillar of development in the 21st century.

Most countries, however, have made little progress in sustainable agriculture and rural development. Populations keep growing. United Nations population estimates suggest there would be 8.5 billion people in the world by 2025, but the capacity of available resources and technologies to satisfy demands for food and other commodities is uncertain.

More decisive adjustments in agricultural, environmental and macroeconomic policy, both at national and international levels, in developed and developing countries, are critical to the survival not only of humankind but of planet Earth as well.

Sustainable agriculture promises food for centuries to come

The challenge with agriculture is in increasing production on land already in use and avoiding further encroachment on land that is unsuitable for cultivation. While increasing food production and enhancing food security are imperative, it must not be done at the expense of the environment.

Agricultural lands which show a higher potential for yield deserve priority in maintenance and improvement, however, this certainly does not mean conserving and rehabilitating natural resources in lower potential lands are unnecessary. In fact, lack of sustainable land management for far too long has resulted in land degradation and desertification.

It is more crucial than ever to integrate principles of sustainable development with agricultural policy in all countries. Land productivity can be improved in sustainable ways – investing in agriculture, more specifically in scientific, technological and institutional innovations, sharing of knowledge, technology transfer and capacity building would revitalize the richness of the earth.

Rural development sustains land and people

Deficient policies, lack of participation by key stakeholders, limited education and underdeveloped financial markets all constitute roadblocks to rural development. As a consequence of uneven development, many segments of the rural sector itself have been left behind by efforts at development, and capacity-building is essential to getting them involved in the process.

The participation of all major groups is necessary – in particular women, youth, small farmers, indigenous people and local communities. They all share a right to use available lands, as well as equitable access to water and forest resources, to technologies, financing, marketing, processing and distribution. Likewise, everyone must also share the responsibility of developing the world’s resources in a sustainable way.

Sustainable agriculture and rural development is a concerted effort

The common goal of sustainable agriculture and rural development is to increase food production without causing harm to the environment and ensuring food for present and future generations. Poverty eradication, food security and sustainable natural resource management are inter-linked. Rural people, national governments, the private sector and international communities must all work together to fulfil the potential of sustainable agriculture and rural development.

CSD-17 marks an important milestone on the route to 2015, the target year for reducing world hunger by 50 percent. At CSD-17, policymakers from around the world are expected to forge a common vision of a future where stable supplies of nutritionally adequate food are made accessible to all – including vulnerable groups. The bigger picture encompasses employment, steady income, and decent living and working conditions for the whole of society. Most importantly, CSD-17 will map out the policies needed to arrive at that vision.

Based on the message of Gerda Verburg, Chairperson of CSD-17, Agenda 21 - chapter 14, and the statement by Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary General, delivered on 27 October 2008

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A society for all: utopia or reality?

A society for all: utopia or reality?

Poverty eradication, full employment and decent work for all in a society where everyone works together for the common good is the ultimate goal of social integration

The 21st century ushered in an era of rapid social change. Advancements in science and technology enhanced not only production but also our way of life. Communications became faster, in real time, which strengthened trade that opened new opportunities for economic growth and development.

These opportunities, however, did not extend to all groups of society. We are experiencing now a time of great prosperity, but also a time of immense poverty and hardship. Never has the world seen more disparity than it has at this age.

While economic and social inequality is at its worst, the state of the world at present is not entirely new. Poverty, unemployment and social disintegration had already made their way to crisis levels during the 1990s, when globalization was still at its early stages.

It was then that the United Nations, together with heads of State and Government, gathered for the first time in history for the World Summit for Social Development. Held in 1995 at Copenhagen, the Summit committed to “a political, economic, ethical and spiritual vision for social development that is based on human dignity, human rights, equality, respect, peace, democracy, mutual responsibility and cooperation, and full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of people.”

The notion of social integration thus emerged from the World Summit as vital to realizing its vision of “a more stable, safe and just society for all”. Fourteen years later and after persistent collaborative studies, the 47th session of the Commission for Social Development renews the commitment to social integration in pursuit of poverty eradication, full employment and decent work for all.

Social integration may very well be seen as a goal and a process at the same time, but it is also the subject of continuing controversy among the UN Member States.

The contention arises from the term itself, because “social integration” may bring to mind assimilation of minorities. In this context, many believe that forced social integration may lead to the loss identity: cultural identity, ethnic identity, class identity or any other social identity. Indigenous groups for instance would lose a rich heritage if they were forced to assimilate into mainstream society.

Mr. Sergei Zelenev, Chief of the Social Integration Branch of DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, offers “social inclusion” as a term which more readily captures the meaning of a society for all. Many groups, such as indigenous peoples mentioned above, would rather be included than “integrated”, he explains. The Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Promoting Social Integration convened in July 2008 in Finland described social inclusion as “a process by which efforts are made to ensure equal opportunities for all, regardless of their background, so that they can achieve their full potential in life”.

Social inclusion encourages and promotes socio-economic development. It supports participation and allows for the meaningful and effective engagement of all members of society in shaping a shared future.

Despite its propensity to misconceptions, UN parlance uses “social integration” as an agreed language in promoting social development, for the true spirit of social integration lies in the definition given by the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development. It is the “the process of promoting the values, relations and institutions that enable all people to participate in social, economic and political life on the basis of equality of rights, equity and dignity”.

Inclusion is actually one of the pillars of social integration, along with participation and justice. Policies designed to achieve a stable, safe and just society wherein every individual enjoys rights and responsibilities, and has an active role to play, must be inclusive.

Here, we see how social integration and social inclusion are not at odds with each other. Experts believe social inclusion is an action governments can take to create more integrated societies.

The EGM established that it is essential in social inclusion to implement policies, actions and institutional arrangements that promote equal access to public services and that enhance citizens’ participation in the decision-making process – including the civil, social, economic and political activities that affect their lives.

Mr. Zelenev, in addition, stresses the importance of ensuring the issues of social inclusion are not lost within Government structures, which unfortunately happens often. For this reason, the report of the Secretary-General on promoting social integration stressed the need for Governments to consider establishing an institutional focal point tasked with promoting social integration.

There are many groups in society that are marginalized by economic and social forces. People living in rural areas, for example, are on the margins of society. Government services do not reach those areas, and so the people neither benefit nor contribute to the larger community. How can they be considered as true citizens with rights and responsibilities if they are, in effect, excluded from society?

The economic, social and cultural implications of exclusion are manifold. In his report, the Secretary-General states, “Economic aspects of exclusion encompass exclusion from the labor market and access to assets. Social and cultural aspects refer to exclusion from access to social services, means of communication, community and family support or State protection. Such economic, social and cultural exclusion leads to political exclusion, where individuals are prevented from exercising their rights as citizens, including access to decision-making.”

Pervasive factors of exclusion

Different groups may be excluded in different countries. The report of the Secretary-General found the unemployed to be the most vulnerable to exclusion in some, while in others, ethnic, religious and cultural minorities face the greatest risk.

In Africa, social exclusion is seen as a direct result of poverty and discrimination based on gender and race, as are internally displaced persons and refugees and HIV/AIDS infection. Sixty-eight percent of the HIV/AIDS-infected population lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

Migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific struggle against discrimination, exploitation and abuse. The year 2005 saw 58 million international migrants in search of employment throughout the region, but despite growing figures, protecting the rights of migrant workers has yet to be properly addressed.

The Asia-Pacific region is also home to 400 million elderly persons. This aging population is expanding twice as quickly as the general population, and its greatest challenge lies in securing income, employment, health, nutrition and social services.

Western Asia, a region troubled by conflict and displacement, confronts the crisis of refugees and a large migrant labor force. Three and a half million internally displaced persons and twice as many refugees face uncertainty in the Middle East, but as determined in the report of the Secretary-General, many will not benefit from social development programs because they lack the status of citizen.

Income inequality is highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, affecting most significantly indigenous groups and those of African descent. Various forms of discrimination are rife and exclusion of these groups hinders smooth functioning of democracy, achieving full citizenship and threatens the overall well-being of society.

Poverty and unemployment are the two main factors of exclusion in Europe. The report of the Secretary-General found 16 percent of the European population at risk of financial poverty in 2007, 20 percent lived in substandard housing, 10 percent lived in households were nobody worked and 4 percent in long-term unemployment.

In developed countries like the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, indigenous peoples consistently lag behind most indicators of well-being while immigrants face challenges relating to social, economic and cultural integration.

Social exclusion leads to increased poverty, reduced growth, higher incidence of crime, social upheaval and threats to public safety – regardless of the cause. It perpetuates a cycle of destitution, inequality, conflict and instability.

Social integration as the key to development and progress

Promoting social integration requires political leadership and commitment. However, “the task of social integration is not the responsibility of Governments alone but should be shared by all sectors of the economy and society at large, including the private sector and civil society organizations,” the Secretary-General states.

“Social policies should be transformative so as to enable the socially excluded and the marginalized to be integrated in society and to break intergenerational poverty and exclusion.”

As a starting point, one has to identify the hurdles and barriers that may jeopardize or prevent social integration for vulnerable groups, Mr. Zelenev says.

Socially inclusive policies should then be developed and mainstreamed into national development and poverty reduction strategies, the Secretary-General’s report recommended.

There must also be a removal of all discriminatory provisions from national legal frameworks and governments must be more active in pursuing policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property and birth or other status. Laws that prohibit discrimination are virtually important to safeguard the interests of all people in society, including marginalized and vulnerable groups.

At the same time, governments should also establish mechanisms in which socially excluded groups, including women, minorities and other marginalized groups are free to express their needs and aspirations.

Attention to the needs of fragile societies, including those emerging from conflict, as well as sub regions at risk, must in turn engage the international community. It is also ideal to maintain a forum wherein governments may exchange good policies and best practices to facilitate equity, inclusion and cohesion.

But while nations and governments endeavor to create a society for all, a culture of tolerance and respect for the rights of others is hardly possible without education. Development must begin with shaping young minds – and especially with promoting values of compassion, tolerance and respect for diversity.

Social integration has the potential to accomplish more than poverty eradication, full employment and decent work for all. It fosters an environment of respect for the dignity of each and every individual, leading to a society bound by a willingness to help each other, such that everyone works together for the common good.

Based on the Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Promoting Social Integration, the Report of the Secretary-General on Promoting Social Integration and collaboration with Mr. Sergei Zelenev, Chief of the Social Integration Branch of DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development.

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Group of 77 is critical to overcome global crisis

Group of 77 is critical to overcome global crisis

At the handover ceremony of the chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China on 23 January, Mr. Sha Zukang, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs states that “DESA is directly involved in supporting the Secretary-General in addressing the challenge of climate change” and that the financial crisis is on top of DESA’s agenda. “The full and active participation and collaboration of the G77 and China is vital to forming meaningful outcomes on global challenges like these”, says Mr. Sha.

Video: (6 minutes)
Statement of Mr. Sha:
Full coverage: (3 hours 31 minutes)