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

Preparations for Population Conference Heat Up

Air Date: Week of

The United Nations is trying to set up an agenda for the population conference in Cairo. Shaping the event is doubly difficult since many argue that population isn't the sole problem. Some blame consumption patterns, misdirected family planning programs or the need for greater empowerment of women. Amy Eddings examines the issues and conflicting viewpoints of population policy.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
The world's population is expected to double in the next generation, to more than 10 billion people. And almost all of these new souls will be born in the less affluent regions of the planet. Many think that the sheer numbers of people add up to what they call the world population crisis, while others say that population is only one element of a complex web of factors threatening the world's sustainability, among them poverty, environmental quality, reproductive health, the status of women, and consumption patterns among the world's wealthy. Since 1974 the United Nations has convened a summit conference every 10 years to look at population and development issues. The goal is to develop a consensus on how to bring the world's population into balance with its resources. This year the meeting is in Cairo in September. The agenda for the summit is being hammered out this month at the UN in New York, and as Amy Eddings reports, finding that consensus may prove to be elusive.

EDDINGS: The mood at the New York meeting is expected to be tense. Population issues cut across a host of sensitive topics like sex, gender, economics, and religion. How sensitive they can be was seen at the last population conference, held in Mexico City in 1984. There, the US delegation, directed by the Reagan Administration, withdrew funds for programs that offered abortion services. Without the support and leadership of the United States, many international population programs have languished. But with the election of President Bill Clinton, family planning and population issues have again become a priority. Tim Wirth, a counselor at the US Department of State and a member of the delegation to Cairo, coordinates US international population programs. He calls the Mexico City policy wanton ignorance, and says the time is right for the US to shake its past.

WIRTH: We may be at a time going into Cairo where the planets are lined up in the right way. I mean here we are in a situation with an administration in Washington, appropriations committee chairmen who are very sympathetic to this in the Congress, where the US can exercise the leadership that's expected.

EDDINGS: But great care must be taken if this year's conference is to avoid the mistakes of the past and overcome their legacy as well, and many believe the first way to start is by overhauling international family planning programs. Critics say they've been narrowly focused on population growth control, where success was determined by numbers and quotas. This approach often meant the neglect of a woman's overall reproductive health. Poor counseling, inappropriate contraceptive use, infections, and side effects were common. Bici Ogunleyi is the head of the Countrywoman's Association in Nigeria.

OGUNLEYI: Any population policy or family planning program that doesn't count or take care of the woman's reproductive health is not in favor of the woman.

EDDINGS: Another major conflict is over the relationship between population and the environment. Many in the industrialized world see population growth as a threat to the carrying capacity of the earth as natural resources, arable soil, and wildlife habitats are depleted by ever-increasing human numbers. For these groups, population growth rates must be curbed to protect the environment, but developing countries see environmental degradation and overpopulation as essentially problems caused by underdevelopment and poverty. Mitra Vashisht, a counselor for the Indian Mission to the UN, says her country needs economic assistance in addition to family planning programs.

VASHISHT: Because of our poverty conditions and overpopulation, we have to see it as a package of other measures which is alleviating poverty. Because without this starting point, I don't think we see this issue as ever being related to development.

EDDINGS: Others go further still. They argue that population isn't the problem at all; it's consumption patterns, especially those in developed countries. Although the developed world houses one quarter of the world's population, it consumes three quarters of its energy resources. So far, the United States hasn't addressed this issue as it prepares for Cairo. And Cece Modupe Fadope, spokeswoman for the US group Women of Color for Reproductive Health and Rights, says consumption patterns must be addressed.

FADOPE: The present model of development, the consumer confidence, consumer index, we want the focus to change from consumption to a holistic approach to human development. We can't measure the quality of life by how much people consume. We measure the quality of life by what kind of contribution we make into the world to make the world a better place to live.

EDDINGS: Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the international conference on population and development is dealing with the charge that population policies are really ones of population control targeted by the rich white nations primarily at the poor and people of color. Whether or not that was true, US delegate Tim Wirth says that that's not the case for the United States as it heads for Cairo.

WIRTH: What we are about is not telling anybody about population control. It is not the north telling anybody what to do. What we're about is a wonderfully American idea, and that is give people the opportunity to make choices and have an impact on the future of their own lives. Obviously, it's not going to happen unless a country wants to do it, and unless that country establishes effective programs from the grassroots up, predominantly women-centered programs.

EDDINGS: But there are likely to be many more kinks in the agenda. For example, abortion's place in family planning and the resistance to some contraceptive methods from the Vatican and other conservative groups. Or how the UN will enforce the policies that are approved in Cairo. And most importantly, who will foot the bill for them. Whatever comes out of the prep com will go to Cairo in September, and may ultimately lead to the successes or failures that the next conference will have to grapple with in the year 2004. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.



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