March 26, 2010

State Of The Planet 2010: Poverty

On March 25, I attended the State of the Planet conference held by The Earth Institute at Columbia University. The forum was a global event, using an HD webcast to connect panel speakers from New York, New Delhi, Beijing, Nairobi, Monaco, London, and Mexico City. I had never been to such a diverse and interesting conference that wasn’t an ethnic event. The speakers included plenty of current and former UN officials, royalty from Monaco and the Netherlands, CEO’s of several major corporations, and a slew of professors and experts from regional universities. Although many issues and topics were discussed, in my opinion the two most pressing and important debates were on reducing climate change and alleviating poverty in Africa using “green” technologies.

The poverty discussion focused primarily on how to achieve the millennium development goals, with a special focus on whether or not “green” technology is the answer for fixing the poverty crisis in Africa. The panel of speakers in NYC consisted of HRH Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, Prof. Glenn Denning & Prof. Upmanu Lall of Columbia University, and Hans Vestberg the President & CEO of Ericsson. They had quite a few points to make, stating:

- Child mortality has gone down by 25% in recent years, but all goals envisioned by the Millennium Project are still far away
- More people are starving now than in 1990, and maternity care is also suffering
- There have been no implementations of the policies put into action in the last 10 years, only rare cases like in Malawi where progress is evident
- Broadband and mobile communication will help to alleviate the problem because it allows communication to areas with resources
- Water shortage is the next big challenge in policy making (ex. India & China are both facing water crises, but no global action is underway)
- There is no place for poor people in poor countries to safely have a savings for their money

Next, our host Riz Khan of Al Jazeera English connected us to the panel of experts in Nairobi, Kenya to gain an African perspective on the problems. We were introduced to Jonathan Ledgard of The Economist. He was moderating the panel which included, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka of the Republic of Kenya, Achim Steiner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Sylvia Mwichuli of the UN Millennium Campaign, Michael Joseph the CEO of Safaricom, and Mike Bushell of Syngenta International Research Centre. They noted that:

- Africa is accelerating faster than any other continent, but 30-50% of it’s biology has died in the last 10 years
- Africa’s population is doubling, while industrialization needs to quadruple to meet demand
- Government structures need to include grassroots organizations so the common people will also have a voice in the decision-making
- Equal opportunity needs to be provided, so not just the rich countries will develop new, “green” technologies
- Mobile phones and proper banking are MAJOR needs
- 50% of all hospital beds are filled with people who are sick due to impure water consumption
- In 10 years, Kenya can have a 0% carbon emissions output due to development of “green” technology including solar, wind, & hydro
- All countries and continents should pay for any damage they have done to Africa because of poor environmental standards
- There can be no progress when finances are not getting to the people and there are no policies to include the people either
- The protection of Africa’s natural resources needs to be taken into account when developing “green” technology
- Bank loans will have to have new regulations and adjustments in collateral, that assess the people as a group rather than as individuals

We were then brought back to the panel in NYC, where the debate was concluded with some practical approaches to how African nations can effectively improve their socio-economic conditions, while also setting a new standard for “green” technology.

- Sustainability and telecommunications will thrive, but more international governments and companies need to be invested
- When you boost agricultural productivity, then economy also rises
- The more countries can develop and produce food on their own (instead of waiting for aid), the better their chances are for progress
- Investing in resources with immediate payoff is necessary, instead of constantly focusing on future technology that is not yet feasible
- The people are ready, but where are the resources?

The conversation, in my opinion, was one that could have been better served if members from the climate change panel had also been involved in the discussion. In my opinion, there needed to be more representation from science experts, rather than the majority being from the technological, political, and corporate fields. I feel that although there were many people on this panel who offered insight for all the right reasons, there were some statements made that clearly had corporate interest as a top priority. It’s not that I did not expect this, because obviously corporations will be jockeying for contracts to invest and produce new technology wherever they want. I just hope that the companies who end up doing so are less worried about corporate greed and are more worried about doing something good for the planet and the creatures who inhabit it.

- Steve Tyson Jr.

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