Speech of the Patron of the TMF, Thabo Mbeki, at the Policy Day for the “Rights of Future Generations” Working Group: Sharjah, UAE: 12 November 2019


Chairperson Ambassador Lumumba Di-Aping,

Distinguished participants at this Launch of the Working Group on the Rights of Future Generations,

Ladies and gentlemen:

First of all I would like to thank His Highness Sultan Bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah for his kind invitation to me to attend and speak at this Launch of the Working Group on the Rights of Future Generations.

In his letter His Highness characterises this Launch as a joyous occasion. I agree with that assessment and therefore take this opportunity to congratulate His Highness and everybody concerned for the launch here in Sharjah of this Working Group, to address the important matter of the Rights of Future Generations.

There is a page on the internet which invites people to join what it calls a Re-Evolution of Politics and the Economy! It then says:

“We need a political movement and an economic revolution that will give legal, economic and environmental rights to our descendants. We need to remind those “in power” that we are a species like any other, and that we must work to ensure our progeny’s survival, like every other species does…

“For human beings, ensuring our descendants’ survival means enshrining legal, economic and environmental rights for them into our laws and constitutions. Right now, people in the future have no rights. At present, our economic system externalizes (doesn’t consider or account for) the costs of environmental degradation and social injustice…

“We must all affirm that our descendants have the legal and economic right to a healthy and habitable planet … once we’re done with it.”

In the invitation letter to me His Highness the Sultan says: “(This) day’s focus is on the moral, political and science of climate change, and the political economy of transformational transition aimed at radical reduction of greenhouse emissions, and the role of states in securing the rights of future generations.”

This is very understandable because indeed the global movement for the Rights of Future Generations has focused on this matter of climate change, given the predictions made by scientists that unless urgent action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such will be the negative impact on the environment that humanity itself might perish.

It was for this reason that the internet website I have mentioned also says:

“The living inherited their rights from the will of past generations and it is our sacred duty to uphold and protect the natural rights of the future.

“These natural rights are the right to live, in freedom from tyranny and terror, with sufficient security of

  • water;
  • food;
  • health; and
  • safe habitation.

“and to do so for their natural lifetime.”

Certainly in the context of the African Continent, there already exist a number of instances which stand out as a reminder of the vital importance of the message that present generations must take care to hand over to future generations a good and healthy environment.

I will mention three instances in this regard.

At this point I would like to request the understanding of this important gathering that the examples I will cite in the context of addressing the challenge to respect and promote the Rights of Future Generations will be drawn from my own Continent, Africa.

I fully understand that the Working Group being launched today here in Sharjah has to look at the globe as a whole. However I would like to believe that the African instances to which I will refer will indicate consequences and responses of general application.

I will now mention the African instances I have mentioned.

Lake Manyara is one of the important Rift Valley lakes in Tanzania. It is an important element of the Lake Manyara National Park. Like other National Parks, such as Serengeti, Lake Manyara is important for the preservation of wild life, for the similar preservation of bio-diversity and therefore the natural habitat, and for providing vital income-earning tourist opportunities for Tanzania.

It is therefore obvious that everything has to be done to preserve Lake Manyara given the invaluable water resource it provides.

And yet some years ago, and after a few visits to the Lake Manyara National Park I noticed that the Lake seemed to be shrinking and suspected that this might be caused by changes in the climate.

I therefore inquired from the Tanzanian authorities about this matter.

They informed me that my observation about the shrinkage of the Lake was correct. However they told me that this was caused by silting. This was because as the population grew in the villages around the Lake, people started ploughing along the slopes of the hills surrounding the Lake.

The result of this was that when the rains came, they would wash off the top soil and deposit it in the Lake as silt.

Happily the condition of the Lake can be reversed as it would be possible to stop the silting even by the simple method of ensuring that there are contours along the slopes to stop the washing off of the top soil.

This would indeed ensure that Lake Manyara and the National Park are handed to the future generations in pristine condition.

The situation regarding Lake Chad is much worse. It is said that the Lake has shrunk by 90% in the period since the 1960s and might continue to shrink further. I am certain that all of us would readily imagine the environmental changes this has brought about in the Lake Chad Basin!

The major reason for the drastic shrinkage of the Lake is again population growth. In this context, the population in the Lake Chad Basin countries, particularly Nigeria, has required more water especially for irrigation. Over the years some of the rivers which used to feed Lake Chad have ceased to do so because of their use upstream for irrigation purposes.

Quite understandably and correctly, for some years now the countries of the Lake Chad Basin Commission have agreed that measures should be taken to try to refill Lake Chad through water transfers.

Specifically the proposal is that a fraction of the waters of the Ubangi River, the biggest tributary of the Congo River, should be diverted to run into rivers that still feed Lake Chad. Evidently this is perfectly possible and can be done at a relatively affordable cost.

If this were to be done, the Lake Chad Basin Commission countries would have to solve another problem which has arisen as a result of the shrinkage of the Lake.

The problem is that people have occupied and planted crops in the areas which used to be covered by the Lake waters, drawn by the fertility of the soil exposed by the retreating waters. Obviously these people would have to move as Lake Chad began to fill up.

Again I would say that such an intervention, to refill the Lake, would make an important contribution in terms of handing to the future generations a much better Lake Chad Basin!

The third matter I would like to mention is the Congo Basin Rain Forest.

In April this year, Rhett Butler published an article entitled: “The Congo Rainforest”. Among others he said:

“Industrial logging has been the biggest driver of forest degradation. However it’s important not to understate the impact of logging in the region. Logging roads have opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic in some areas and a more than 60 percent drop in the region’s forest elephant population in less than a decade. Furthermore, logging roads have provided access to speculators and small-holders who clear land for agriculture.

“Looking forward, the biggest threats to the Congo rainforest come from industrial logging and conversion for large-scale agriculture. Some environmentalists fear that the Congo could be on the verge of a massive increase in deforestation for palm oil, rubber, and sugar production…

“The forestry sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is completely out of control, according to a new eye-opening report. Put together by the Chatham House, the report estimates that at least 87 per cent of logging in the DRC was illegal in 2011, making the DRC possibly the most high-risk country in the world for purchasing legal wood products.

“(As at June 2011) Forests in sub-Saharan Africa account for roughly a quarter of total tropical forest carbon according to a comprehensive assessment of the world’s carbon stocks published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).”

Obviously this means that there is an urgent need to intervene to protect the Congo Basin Rain Forest, the second biggest in the world after the Amazon Forest, exactly and directly to address the matter of preserving the environment for future generations.

In passing I should also mention the important matter of desertification. It is said that the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) “estimates that by 2030 Africa will lose two-thirds of its arable land if the march of desertification – the spread of arid, desert-like areas of land – is not stopped.”

In this regard the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Luc Gnacadja, has said:

“(Combating) desertification is more than planting trees. (Combating) desertification is first and foremost avoiding the misuse of the land, such as inappropriate use of fertilizer, the use of some crops that are not appropriate for the land, or the type of tillage that denudes (the land).”

This means that the knowledge exists to stem this desertification process, precisely thus to hand over to future generation greater expanses of land they can use to meet their needs.

Mr Chairman,

Distinguished participants:

I would like to repeat that we are indeed happy that this Working Group on the Rights of Future Generations is being launched.

I am certain that you have understood that what I have been saying so far is that already there is a lot of important work which the Working Group must do.

In addition to the important work it will do with regard to climate change and greenhouse gases, committed to respect and advance the Rights of Future Generations, it must also take on board the task to address such instances of environmental degradation as I have mentioned, exactly for the same reason with regard to the said Rights.

Mr Chairman:

As I was preparing these remarks, I reflected on the use of the word “Rights” in the context of what might have been called ‘Legitimate Expectations of Future Generations’.

Wikipedia says: “Rights are legal, social or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory. Rights are of essential importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.” And the website lawgovpol.com says: “it is the duty of government and legal system to protect and uphold these rights.”

In this context another website I quoted earlier, which argues for the Rights of Future Generations said:

“For human beings ensuring our descendants’ survival, means enshrining legal, economic and environmental rights for them into our laws and constitutions.”

I have raised the matter of the use of the word “Rights” with regard to Future Generations not to question its use in this context, but to understand the implications of its use.

In the period since the turn of the Millennium, there are two documents approved at UN General Assembly Summit Meetings which have sought to unite all nations to pursue some universally agreed goals.

I am referring here to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.

Goal 1 of the MDGs said: “Eradicate Extreme Poverty & Hunger”.

Goal 1 of the SDGs said: “No Poverty: End Poverty in all its Forms Everywhere”.

What this means is that two of the most important universally agreed global transformation programmes during this century and millennium, the MDGs and the SDGs, have put as the first Goal which all humanity must address the task to end poverty!

In this context we should recall a statement made by the Executive Heads of the organizations of the United Nations system, meeting under UN ECOSOC in May 1998, 21 years ago.

They said that “poverty eradication… is a key international commitment, and a central objective of the United Nations system.”

They went further to say:

“The paradox of today’s world is nowhere more clearly reflected than in the dynamic of globalization which brings at the same time extraordinary potential and huge risks. On the one hand, never before has so much progress been achieved, in such a short span of time in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. At the same time, more than a billion people still live on less than one dollar a day, and almost 3 billion on less than two…

“Executive Heads are convinced that this situation is unacceptable as the world has the resources and the capacity, if it so chooses, to eradicate absolute poverty. They see in the current global environment a real chance to qualitatively improve the conditions of life for the vast majority of the people on this planet who live in poverty.”

In the context of our present gathering here in Sharjah, concerning efforts to give practical meaning to the Rights of Future Generations, I would argue that the present generations must accept and act according to the understanding that Future Generations have a Right to Freedom from Poverty and Hunger!

It is therefore important to understand what was said about the matter of freedom from hunger and poverty at the end of the decade-and-a-half period of the MDGs.

We are fortunate in this regard that together the four important institutions, the UN ECA, the AU, the AfDB and the UNDP, published the “MDG REPORT 2015” subtitled “Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals”.

Among others this Report said:

“The intensity of poverty in Africa excluding North Africa alone surpasses that of all developing regions, with a minimal reduction from 25 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent in 2010 (see figure 1.3). Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North Africa reduced the intensity of poverty considerably over the same period. Non-inclusive growth due to structural constraints, underdevelopment and poor infrastructure, the lack of decent jobs and food insecurity, have all contributed to the intensity of poverty in Africa.”

Last year, in 2018, one Nirav Patel of the US Brookings Institute wrote in an article entitled “Understanding Poverty in Africa”, which article said:

“The average poverty rate for sub-Saharan Africa stands at about 41 per cent, and of the world’s 28 poorest countries, 27 are in sub-Saharan Africa all with a poverty rate above 30 per cent. Projections by the World Bank also show that extreme poverty is showing few signs of improvement in sub-Saharan Africa, and may keep countries from ending extreme poverty by 2030 (Figure 2). In part, the issue lies in the region’s slower rates of growth despite recent improvements. The World Bank Report ‘Poverty and Shared Prosperity: Piercing Together the Poverty Puzzle’, identifies problems caused by conflict, weak institutions, and a lack of resilience as major barriers to improving the outlook for the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.”

All this paints the bleak picture that even up to 2030, the end of the SDG period, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa may still be trapped in poverty.

The question may be asked, legitimately, – what has this to do with the Rights of Future Generations?

In response to this question I would say that it must surely be self-evident that exactly because this is a matter of life and death, all humanity and therefore Future Generations have an inherent Right to Freedom from Poverty and Hunger!

The challenge humanity faces in this regard, exactly within the context of the Rights of Future Generations, is that it seems obvious that as currently organised, human society prescribes that Future Generations born into poor families will themselves end up as poor families, condemned to bestow the legacy of poverty to their own Future Generations.

In 2016 Stefanie Deluca and Susan Clampet-Lundquis of the US ‘Century Foundation’ published an article entitled “The Cycle of Poverty is not Inevitable” and subtitled ‘Lessons from Baltimore’s Resilient Youth’. Among others the article said:

“Despite being touted as the land of opportunity, social mobility in the United States has become increasingly elusive: where you start out in life strongly determines where you end up.1 This social reproduction—essentially staying in the same social class as one’s parents—is made worse by the legacy of racial segregation. Two-thirds of African-American families will start off in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and still be in this same set of neighborhoods a generation later, compared to only 40 percent of white families.2 As one consequence of these trends, poor African-American children in Baltimore have lower odds of escaping poverty than in any other city in America.3

Many studies, especially in the US, have confirmed the finding I have just indicated that – ‘where you start out in life strongly determines where you end up’!

I am therefore making the firm assertion that our actions today, such as through the admirable Working Group we are launching today, must also address the eminently important Right of Future Generations to Freedom from Poverty and Hunger, bearing in mind that extant knowledge confirms that largely the poverty and hunger which will be experienced by Future Generations will be poverty and hunger inherited from the present generations.

The fact that humanity has for some time been concerned about this matter of the Freedom of Future Generations from Poverty and Hunger is confirmed by the fact that as early as in December 1986, the UN General Assembly adopted the important document, ‘The Declaration on the Right to Development’.

Article 1 of the Declaration says:

“The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised.”

I am arguing that in the context of the adoption of this important Declaration by the peoples of the world, it follows necessarily that all extant generations must understand that the Right to Development, as an inalienable Human Right, also belongs to the Future Generations.

It is, therefore, an obligation on the extant generations, which would have exercised their Right to Development as prescribed in international law, thus to create the conditions such that Future Generations enjoy both Freedom from Poverty and Hunger as well as the Right to Further Development.

I am conscious of the fact that here I am arguing for what will necessarily be complex interventions in any country which would guarantee the realisation of the Right of Future Generations to Freedom from Poverty and Hunger.

One of the complexities in this regard is how human society, and Africa, should respond to the political-economy relationship between socio-economic inequality and poverty!

In March 2016 an article was published entitled “Rational Asymmetric Development: Piketty and Poverty in Africa”, under the auspices of the ‘African Governance and Development Institute’.

It is written by Simplice Asongu, and Jacinta Nwachukwu.

The article is an important source of knowledge because the authors conducted a very comprehensive review of the economic literature which had been generated by the publication of the important book by Thomas Piketty entitled ‘Capital in the 21st Century’.

Among others the important Asongu & Nwachukwu article said:

“Accordingly, a recent stream of empirical literature has established that the response of poverty to growth is a decreasing function of inequality, since the inequality elasticity of poverty is higher than the growth elasticity of poverty…“In general, high initial levels of inequality limit the effectiveness of growth in reducing poverty while growing inequality increases poverty directly for a given level of growth” (Fosu, 2011, p. 11).

I mention this not to ask the Working Group we launch today to engage itself in a study of complicated economic propositions.

However I insist that the matter of gross socio-economic inequality both between the developed and developing countries on one hand, and within both the developed and developing countries, is indeed a matter the Working Group must consider as it considers what needs to be done to ensure that the inherited fate of Future Generations with regard to the eradication of poverty is not determined by the existing levels of socio-economic inequality!

There are some examples of serious and determined efforts which have been made to address the specific challenge to give concrete expression to the Right of Future Generations to Freedom from Poverty and Hunger.

An example of this is a poverty eradication Programme which was implemented by some countries as the so-called ‘Millennium Village Project (MVP)”.

On October 22 this year, the German magazine, Der Spiegel, published an article which focused on the achievements of this ‘Project’.

This Der Siegel article was entitled “Fighting Poverty in Rural Tanzania”. Among other things it said:

“We argue that weaknesses in the MVP’s evaluation methods will make it impossible for anyone to know if the project is achieving its goals,” wrote Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes in the Guardian, in a piece based on a study of the Millennium Villages project they had performed. There was, the pair of scientists argued, insufficient data from before the program began in addition to a lack of comparative data from other villages that had not participated in the program.

“But there had been an even more fundamental criticism from the very beginning: The notion that the fight against poverty would require a “big push,” meaning millions of dollars worth of investments, was an idea conceived by researchers sitting at desks thousands of miles away – people who had no idea what life was really like in the target communities.”

Quite correctly the period for the financing of the MVP by foreign donors was specified in an agreement which was concluded by the Government of Tanzania and the donors concerned.

In this context the Der Spiegel article says:

“Since the MVP project ended four years ago, eight of what was once a team of 11 people have disappeared. “The government was no longer able to pay the salaries of our hospital staff, which were formerly financed by the MVP,” Kindole says. Most nurses and doctors have moved to cities where they can work in private clinics or for NGOs, he says.”

To conclude, I am honoured to salute the Ruler of Sharjah and Member of the Supreme Council, His Highness Sultan Bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, for the initiative that was taken to establish the important Working Group on the Rights of Future Generations.

I trust that the comments I have made will help further to enrich the programme of the Working Group, which I believe will assist to place the Sharjah Working Group on the Rights of Future Generations in the frontlines as a true defender of all the Rights of Future Generations, ready to help ensure full respect for these Rights globally.

Thank you for your attention.

Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.