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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Post-Cairo Conference Progress

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth on what the U.S. has done since the United Nations Conference on Population last fall.


CURWOOD: It's not just Germany where population issues touch race and nationalism. Many poor nations have long argued that population control programs are really efforts by the rich countries to keep the rest of the world in check. But at the recent global conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the focus of population policy shifted away from trying directly to stop women from having more babies towards finding ways of giving them the power to choose. Former US Senator Tim Wirth led the US delegation to the conference and was instrumental in helping forge the new consensus. He's now Undersecretary of State and head of the Population and Consumption Task Force of President Clinton's Sustainable Development Council. The Secretary recently joined us in our Boston studios. I asked what he sees as the biggest obstacles to achieving the goals of the conference.

WIRTH: I think our greatest challenge is maintaining the visibility of the population programs and commitment in a political environment that might be very unfriendly. Population has never been a partisan program. The first president who set up a population office was Richard Nixon, and our support has come very strongly from both sides of the aisle. We hope that that continues.

CURWOOD: Now, the UN Cairo Conference on Population and Development is 5 months behind us at this point. One of the things that was really important about Cairo was the notion of advancing women's empowerment, and how can the US State Department facilitate improvement in the status of women worldwide? I mean this is a development that really requires massive social change, though, don't you think?

WIRTH: Well that's exactly right, it does. I mean any time you're dealing with power, and this is power over reproduction, this is power over economics, it is a major social change. It's a transfer of the means of production in many ways, and that means a transfer to women. And so our primary responsibility is to be the world's leader in this way, to continue to emphasize these programs and that we help to make sure that other nations pay their fair share.

CURWOOD: How do you measure success for something like this?

WIRTH: Well, it's a long-term measurement that's a very good question. I think you measure success by the growth of programs at the grass roots. You can't deliver these programs from the top down; they're really bottom up. And as you see these programs develop all over the world, then you can see you're beginning to have some success. When you see countries make commitments in their own budgets for having a success, the population's still growing but the rate of growth is slowing down and that's a success.

CURWOOD: You mentioned that a number of United States allies are being very helpful. For example, after Cairo the Germans committed millions of dollars. But you know, one of their eastern states, Brandenburg, is offering women citizens cash incentives to have children. I'm wondering if this concerns you at all.

WIRTH: Well, that's a decision to be made by the German government. In some places in Europe, they're below the replacement rate, and they're below keeping their population even. We in the United States are well above that. These are decisions that every sovereign nation makes, and part of the Cairo declaration was that within the norms of that country, they make decisions for themselves.

CURWOOD: It seems to me, though, that the countries are still thinking about population, then, in local terms rather than global terms. Clearly, the message from Cairo is to sound the alarm that we as a world have to do something to reduce our population.

WIRTH: I think the world understands that there is an urgency of population. Let's remember that as population grows very rapidly, 95% of that population growth is occurring in countries that can least afford to carry that growth. If we can help also to raise the development of the poorer countries, they will have fewer kids and give them the choices to do so. So, you think about the overall level of global population growth, but then you have to clearly focus on how you get at it and you can only do that on a very much of a local basis.

CURWOOD: I wanted to ask you how you intend to bring Cairo home. What are your priorities on the domestic front in the wake of Cairo?

WIRTH: Well, it's very important that we focus on at least three issues. One of those is understanding the implications of immigration, and immigration accounts for more than a third of the population growth in the United States. We in the United States are growing by about 3 million a year. We can't welcome everybody who wants to come to the United States; we never have and never will. A second issue relates to the education of girls; we know that as girls receive more education they have more life opportunities. They tend to have smaller families. And third, there is a terrific problem that we face of adolescent pregnancy, children having children. And if we can provide the kinds of education to make sure that young girls do not feel the need, the compulsion of having a child and can defer those decisions until later, you know, we're going to be, I think, overall better off as a society in bringing kids into families that can handle them. So those three issues of immigration, the education of girls, and children having children, I think are probably the three most important ones that we must focus on right here in the United States of America.

CURWOOD: Tim Worth is Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs and Chair of the Task Force on Population and Consumption for the President's Council on Sustainable Development.



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