Advancing Human Development through Social and Environmental Justice for All

This article is adapted from one that appeared on the ATD-USA web site.

On July 8 2020, ATD Fourth World and the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) jointly sponsored a webinar entitled “Advancing Human Development Through Social and Environmental Justice for All” as part of the United Nations High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development.

Typically held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the HLPF reviews and provides guided recommendations for the implementation of, and commitment to, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the HLPF was held online this year.

The theme of the 2020 HLPF was “accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development,” especially in light of the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. From July 7th to July 16th, member-states, NGOs, human rights organizations, and other associations took part in a wide variety of side events that discussed this theme.

The webinar organized by ATD Fourth World and UNDP HDRO touched upon the multidimensional intersection of social and environmental justice. The coronavirus and the encroaching threat of climate change has, and will, disproportionately hurt the world’s most vulnerable populations. As the event description stated, the webinar addressed “people-centered solutions favoring participation, solidarity, dignity and respect for the planet.”

 “A triple crisis”

The panelists for the side event included:

  • Linda García, President of the Board of Directors of ATD Fourth World in Guatemala
  • Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office of UNDP
  • Shahra Razavi, Director of the Social Protection Department of the International Labor Organization (ILO)
  • Andy Raine, Head of the International Environmental Law Unit at the UN Environment Program (UNEP)
  • Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (via video message)

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, moderated the discussion.

Ms. Fukuda-Parr began the webinar by stating that the side event “will be an opportunity to remind ourselves of putting people at the center of development.”

  • “Today we face this triple crisis of pandemic, climate and inequality… As the pandemic deepens inequality and reinforces the vulnerability to climate change, it has revealed the importance of participation, solidarity, dignity and respect for the planet as essential conditions for both addressing the pandemic and for building the post Covid-19 world.”

Turning garbage into art in Guatemala

Linda García then described her experience working with ATD and vulnerable communities living in extreme poverty in Guatemala. Ms. García began her presentation with a quote from ATD activist Raquel: “Statistics don’t tell you what poverty is.”

Ms. García described how families in Guatemala City sort through the garbage and recycling to earn money, but also to help clean up the city. Some of the trash is incorporated into an ATD project called “Working and Learning Together.”  There, people living in poverty create crafts and home products from paper, aluminum and other materials that have been thrown out.

“Working and Learning Together” has encouraged many women to overcome barriers or fears by providing a safe space that takes every person’s abilities into account. Ms. García mentioned how the bonds between vulnerable communities grew even stronger throughout the pandemic. Families made sure that their neighbors and friends were not left behind. She quoted Guatemalan ATD Fourth World activists Luis and Sindy who said, “We know what it is to have absolutely nothing. We know what it is to be hungry, what it is to be alone.  That is why we share the food that we have now.”

Disparate impacts of pollution

The next speaker, Pedro Conceição, discussed the Human Development Office’s most recent report on inequalities, which highlighted the pandemic and the environmental crisis. For 30 years, they have been using a multidimensional poverty index. Rather than measuring income, this index measures elements that “deprive people from having agency and dignity.”

Mr Conceição pointed out that, “Today we know that non-Hispanic whites, relative to their consumption, have about 20% less damages or exposure to pollution, while Black communities have over 50% more exposure to pollution compared to their consumption.” Thus, the issue of sustainable efforts to address climate change must be incorporated within the narrative of human development in the future.

Covid-19 recovery plans must support climate mitigation

The webinar then displayed a video from Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. This moment in time provides a unique opportunity, Mr. De Schutter said, “to shift the global economy in the right direction” with respect to climate change mitigation and the fight against poverty.

Mr. De Schutter mentioned a study of over 300 national recovery plans created during the pandemic. Only four percent included ambitions to support climate mitigation. Another four percent were “brown plans,” which would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 92 percent of plans were considered to be neutral.

Thus, as economies begin to bounce back after the pandemic, countries must ensure that employment opportunities incorporate permanent sustainable solutions: a pro-poor and pro-climate policy. This could include strengthening public transportation or encouraging decentralized energy grids in rural areas. Most importantly, however, those in poverty must be included in developing plans to build back better after the pandemic.

Covid-19 highlights importance of social protection

Shahra Razavi, Director of the Social Protection Department of the ILO, suggested that the current crisis could become an opportunity. In fact, the pandemic has highlighted the differences between countries that have strong social protection programs and those that do not.

“Those who have had secure jobs and can work remotely with access to good internet, those who have the backing of a very strong social protection system, have been able to bounce back much better than those who do not have these assets to draw on,” Ms. Razavi said.

  •  “I think the need for a universal social protection system as a necessary ingredient to build dynamic economies and inclusive societies has been underlined very clearly by this crisis.”

Need for right to a healthy environment

The final speaker Andrew Raine, Head of the International Environmental Law Unit at the UN Environment Program, also highlighted the direct correlation between the pandemic and the environment.

“We’ve been mapping very closely what countries are doing as a response to Covid-19 with their environmental policy and legal frameworks and we’re seeing a very disturbing trend,” he said. “Instead of stepping up, we’re seeing a lot of member states step back. I think half of all of the G20 countries have demonstrated a regression in environmental protection, be it a step back in environmental impact assessment, procedures or laws.

  • “Perhaps more concerning, and more linked to environmental justice, some states are even criminalizing or proposing to criminalize environmental protest. That is incredibly concerning and that is not the way to go if we want to recalibrate our relationship with nature.”

“Now is the time for the international community to recognize a universal human right to a healthy environment,” insisted Mr. Raine.

The fights against poverty and climate change are intertwined, and in order to build back better, countries must address these issues simultaneously.

Slow pace of change causes frustration

Following the panelists, questions focused on how to deal with the concerns raised by the speakers. Ms. García emphasized that tangible action requires people living in poverty to have a seat at the table. They have much to contribute especially as many people living in poverty are already developing effective solutions on their own.

Mr. Conceição echoed Ms. García’s statements. There is not a lack of awareness or concern, he pointed out.  In fact, “…studies show that more than 70% of people think that climate change is a threat as serious as COVID-19.”  While we need to do more, many countries are taking steps in the right direction.

Ms. Fukuda-Parr ended the webinar by acknowledging the frustration that many feel about the slow pace of change given the severity of the climate crisis and the injustice of inequality around the world. Whether we are dealing with the current pandemic, widespread inequality or the impacts of climate change, vulnerable communities cannot be left behind.

More on ATD Fourth World in the United States

More on ATD Fourth World’s activities at the United Nations

More on ATD and Climate Justice

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