A New Way to Address Poverty Alleviation

(October 2006) Over the past decade, a growing number of small population-environment field projects, funded principally by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have achieved not only their main goals—which varied from increasing child immunization and family planning to protecting mangrove forests—but also helped reduce poverty within project areas. Although poverty alleviation is rarely an explicit objective of such projects, a recent review of 12 population-environment (PE) projects, encompassing 35 field sites, demonstrates that PE projects are able to link poverty alleviation, natural resource management, and health/family planning objectives in mutually beneficial ways.

Integrating Population and Environment

PE projects normally consist of conventional environment interventions such as natural resource management as well as family planning. Links between stewardship of the environment and family size are typically presented in project materials and emphasized to community beneficiaries. Projects with explicit health objectives may be referred to as PHE projects (population, health, and environment), but there is no hard line of demarcation between the two terms.

Advocates of PE/PHE hypothesize that this integrated approach adds value to stand-alone environment or family planning projects. New evidence suggests that it does: The recent review of the “first generation” of PE/PHE field projects concluded that there is significant value added in the integrated approach, often expressed by expanded gender roles and greater community participation. Other major conclusions were that a variety of community mobilization techniques have stimulated positive change quickly; that the projects have been popular with beneficiaries, local mayors, and partner organizations; and that the projects are cost-effective.

PE/PHE projects are usually carried out in regions where the local environment and its natural resources are under considerable threat and where population density or population growth contribute to environmental deterioration. They are also typically areas of intense poverty. Clusters of integrated projects have addressed problems of coastal fishing communities in the Philippines and upland forests and farming communities in Madagascar. Integrated PE/PHE projects are now being replicated and scaled up in several regions of the Philippines. New projects have been initiated in Madagascar, Tanzania, and Nepal.

The availability of health services, such as immunization, is often at the top of village “wish lists.” Savy environmental organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund/Madagascar, use health services to establish a relationship with the community and to team with a health-focused nongovernmental organization (NGO) to gain the support and trust of villagers. Some integrated projects target improving water supply and quality along with improving sanitation. Villagers quickly see the link between improved upland watershed and forest conservation and the availability of clean water for drinking, bathing, and irrigation.

Coastal Resource Management

Most of the environment or “E” objectives in PE/PHE projects have focused on the improved use of coastal fishing areas and upland forested areas that are owned by the community or by the government. Their objectives are to support community efforts to improve the use and long-term value of these “common” resources. While all of the projects have had a conservation focus, several also included income-generation and poverty-alleviation objectives. Several PHE projects that promote coastal and other natural resource management interventions have also helped reduce poverty.

How can communities of small fishermen reverse the trend toward overfishing and increasing poverty? Improvements in coastal resource management and the development of alternative income opportunities are being successfully introduced as a package in many countries. They provide opportunities for income generation and provide a safety net for the poor by diversifying the use of labor. Alternative livelihood opportunities and affordable credit are key factors that can reduce the dependence of poor fishermen on overfished waters and allow time for regeneration of overexploited marine resources through conservation.

One PE/PHE coastal project in the Philippines has incorporated a credit component at some of its 12 sites. Credit made available by the Integrated Population and Coastal Resource Management program (IPOPCORM), implemented by PATH/Philippines, is used to stimulate alternative livelihoods, such as manufacturing roofing materials and handicrafts from mangrove fibers. Like other PE/PHE coastal projects, their objectives also included establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), community patrolling, and enforcing fishing regulations, and improved mangrove management. Some projects had policy objectives such as the establishment of local government aquatic resource management councils and approval of supporting legislation and regulations.


In many upland forest regions, farmers are expanding slash and burn agriculture up steep hillsides in response to growing population pressure. As forests are destroyed, hillsides erode and traditional water catchment and stream networks are ruined. Alternative livelihoods and the availability of credit are increasing seen as key to forest and water conservation. These activities complement conservation activities that protect tree-cover and soils, reduce burning, maintain biodiversity, decrease pollution and pests, and, over the longer term, reduce downstream erosion and ensure the availability of water for drinking and irrigation.

One PE/PHE program, Madagascar Green and Healthy Communities (MGHC), focused almost exclusively on upland forest landscapes in 10 sites in Madagascar. The project’s initial results included increased farmer incomes and food security as well as better natural resource management. The project facilitated training in new production techniques for rice, vegetables, and new crops such as ginger and honey; access to mechanical equipment; and access to microcredit. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Mexican NGO Pronatura piloted a PE project that supported organizations of coffee producers and established savings groups with small-scale credit, even though the project was focused more on conservation and family planning than on alternative livelihoods.

In Asia and Latin America, World Neighbors, an NGO with a traditional focus on rural and community development, now uses PE/PHE as its preferred approach to addressing rural development and poverty alleviation in many of its programs.


Rapid population growth and health problems caused by high fertility and closely spaced births continue to affect much of the developing world. For many development planners and historians, “the demographic revolution is not complete and won’t be soon.” Indeed, the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) recognized that “poverty perpetuates poor health, gender inequality and rapid population growth.” Family planning and health services are typically least available in remote upland and coastal settings where PE projects tend to be situated.

While the long-term impacts of family planning and related health services on poverty are clear, there are also more immediate reasons for linking family planning and poverty alleviation at PE project sites. As more women adopt family planning, the pool of female workers increases because women have fewer pregnancies. As households become smaller through limiting and spacing births, there is more food available for each family member, improving the family’s overall nutrition. Healthier families also mean lower medical costs and less work time lost to illness or caring for sick children.

How Well Can the PE/PHE Approach Alleviate Poverty?

The PE/PHE approach has been unusually successful in achieving multiple objectives in projects on several continents and in both coastal and upland ecosystems. A small number of these projects have included credit and alternative livelihood components that appear to benefit from the value added (for example, through expanded activities for men and women, community mobilization, cost-effectiveness, community popularity) that the PE methodology has generated. But how strong is the evidence that the PE/PHE approach can significantly alleviate poverty? What additional information is needed to demonstrate this positive link?

Although projects in more than 35 field sites have been completed, only a handful have included credit components and alternative livelihood activities or have set targets for and measured explicit poverty alleviation outcomes. Most of the one- to two-year pilot projects, including those with credit components, have not been in place long enough to achieve longer-term goals.

Another key question about success of PHE for poverty alleviation is how broadly and under what conditions are PE/PHE approaches more appropriate than more conventional single-sector agriculture or alternative livelihood programs? According to practitioners from project sites, PE/PHE projects are most appropriate in or near threatened environmental “hotspots” where local communities exert heavy pressure on the natural resource base, in part, because of high population density; and where demographic, health, or poverty indicators are especially poor.

Successful PE/PHE and Poverty Alleviation Projects

At least four attributes of successful PE/PHE projects mirror attributes recommended more generally for poverty alleviation projects:

  • Gender impact. PE/PHE projects are designed to have a major gender impact. Women and adolescent girls join in supporting environmental objectives (for example, replanting mangroves and serving as officers of fisherman associations), while men and adolescent boys participate in health and reproductive health trainings and activities. Ultimately, the gender impact results from including both men and women in nontraditional activities.
  • Community mobilization. PE/PHE projects have clearly been successful in mobilizing communities when communities determine their own population, health, and environment priorities. For example, in Madagascar, the Champion Community approach has been used over 10 years to allow communities to prioritize their health and environment goals. Similarly, in the Philippines, the Appreciative Community Mobilization methodology has been used by SAVE/Philippines to allow their partners in local communities to determine which PHE interventions are most important for solving their pressing needs. Both these methodologies actively engage and mobilize community members to become involved in development planning and can be adapted to promote poverty alleviation.
  • Economies of scale for beneficiaries. PE/PHE is popular in local communities. Mayors and villagers like integrated projects, in part because they make more efficient use of their time and they must deal with only one set of outsiders.
  • Opportunities for expansion. PE/PHE projects can be expanded to include policy initiatives related to new legislation, regulations, or the provision of local funding, in addition to field interventions.


Good theoretical and practical arguments suggest that linking PE/PHE approaches to poverty alleviation makes good sense. Several recent reports and organizations have underlined the link between protecting natural resources and reducing poverty. World Resources International’s focused its 2005 report, World Resources 2005: Wealth of the Poor, on how income from ecosystems can help reduce poverty. The UN’s Equator Initiative put its belief in “win-win” conservation and poverty alleviation initiatives into action by establishing the Equator Prize and providing funding to scale up successful pilot projects.

Several PE/PHE projects in both the Philippines and Madagascar have completed their “capital stage,” that is, the pilot projects are successfully completed, program and training materials developed, and the NGOs and local governments are experienced in the project approach. It now seems appropriate to scale up PE/PHE programs that include explicit credit and alternative livelihood objectives, allowing projects to reach new populations in administrative districts, provinces, ecosystems, or landscapes.

The strong support from local leaders and communities that have implemented PE/PHE projects provides the basis for incorporating the “PE and poverty alleviation” concept into district and provincial plans that are increasingly being funded by donors that support decentralized programs.

Another, more cautious approach, would be to continue funding for ongoing PE/PHE pilot projects, but expand the alternative livelihood and credit components. This would provide planners the opportunity to measure the poverty impact of PE/PHE projects, but it would delay expanding a successful model to more communities experiencing environmental and demographic stress.

PRB’s PHE Program works to improve people’s lives around the world by helping program managers and decisionmakers understand and address the consequences of population and environment interactions. For more information on the PHE program, please write to

John Pielemeier is an independent consultant who has led evaluations for environment, health, and integrated programs for a variety of agencies. He previously served in Africa, Latin America, and Asia with the U.S. Peace Corps and United States Agency for International Development.