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19 July 2021

Poverty can be defined as deprivation in well-being, with well-being measured through overlapping deprivations at the household level concerning achievements in health, education and standard of living (UNDP HDR 2010). As this definition indicates, poverty is multi-dimensional in nature.

A key achievement of the UNDP–UNEP Poverty Environment Initiative (PEI) and Poverty Environment Action (PEA) programmes in Africa is the clear demonstration that appropriate investments in sustainable management of environment and natural resources and resilience can significantly contribute to poverty reduction. A further achievement is in developing methodologies to integrate environment and natural resource (ENR) factors into multi-dimensional poverty measurement, which will enable improved poverty assessments and poverty reduction targeting. These achievements provide a powerful argument for Governments and development partners to support the integration of ENR and climate change into poverty assessments and allocate resources for sustainability and resilience to reduce poverty.

Our work also demonstrates that poorer people suffer disproportionately from the unsustainable management of environment and natural resources – especially poorer women. For example, soil erosion and over-cultivation reduce agricultural productivity and yields and thus makes it more difficult to achieve food security and reduce poverty. Overfishing reduces the quantity and size of fish caught, which also makes it more difficult to achieve food security and reduce poverty. Deforestation causes erosion, which increases vulnerability to droughts and floods and also silts up hydro-electricity generation lakes, which reduces hydro-power generation.

In Malawi, a 5.3% loss of Gross Domestic Product (GPD) is due to unsustainable ENR, with 1.9% due to soil degradation. Substantially reducing soil erosion would have recovered 6% growth in agricultural yields between 2005-2015, increased GDP growth from 3.2 to 4.8 percent per year and lifted an additional 1.88 million people above the poverty line by 2015. Further, appropriately targeted, a 1% increase in expenditure in the ENR sector (US$300,000) would increase per capita GDP by 0.43% or US$1.10 1 2.

In Rwanda, a 167% increase in per unit electricity costs was due to wetland degradation and soil erosion reducing hydro-electricity production and requiring expensive fossil fuel generation 3.

In Mozambique, unsustainable ENR and inefficiencies were assessed to cost 17% of GDP per annum and the cost of addressing these to be 9% of GDP, yet only 1.4% of GDP is spent on the environment. The cost of unsustainable ENR without counting the inefficiencies was estimated to be 11.4% of GDP. 4

Most smallholder farmers in Africa are women and their productivity is disproportionately impacted upon by declining soil quality as they are less productive than male farmers. This lower productivity is termed the gender gap in agriculture. In Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda, a joint analysis conducted by PEI with UN Women and the World Bank calculated the gap to be 16%, 28% and 13%, respectively. Closing the gap would bring total increases in GDP of US$105 million, US$100 million and US$67 million, respectively. Poverty-Environment Action’s cooperation with UN Women on gender and agriculture in Africa continues to address opportunities for improving women farmer’s lives through strengthened management of environment and natural resources.

Photo: Nhandulo's community association, Mozambique, builds their shadowed greenhouse, UNDP (2020)


The series Stories of Change 2021 was prepared by UNDP–UNEP Poverty-Environment Action for Sustainable Development Goals through the generous financial support of the Governments of Austria, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and the European Union.



  • 1 Yaron, G., R. Mangani, J. Mlava, P. Kambewa, S. Makungwa, A. Mtethiwa, S. Munthali, W. Mgoola, and J. Kazembe (2011). Economic Study: Economic Analysis of Sustainable Natural Resource Use in Malawi. United Nations Development Programme – Malawi and United Nations Environment Programme.
  • 2 PricewaterhouseCoopers; Agriculture and Natural Resources Management Consortium (ANARMAC) (2016). Overcoming Poverty in Malawi through Sustainable Environment and Natural Resources Management – Identifying Policy Options to Accelerate Poverty Reduction. Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development. UNDP-Malawi and UNEP.
  • 3 Mushara, H (2006): Economic Analysis of Natural Resource Management in Rwanda. Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), UNDP – Rwanda and UNEP.
  • 4 UNDP-UNEP, MICOA (2012). Environmental Economic Analysis of Natural Resources Management in Mozambique – Links between Poverty and Environment. SBA-Ecosys (2012)