by Carolyn Chase
n or about October 12, 1999, the United Nations is noting that the Earth's global population will reach six billion. The whole idea of planning for billions and billions of people globally puts our regional struggles to fit in another few million into perspective.
At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 180 countries reached a landmark consensus on a comprehensive approach to population growth and development. The "Cairo Consensus" was a remarkable turning point where governments formally recognized that the health, rights, and well-being of the individual lie at the core of sustainable development. Reproductive rights, including access to quality reproductive health and family planning services, were established as key to this consensus.
To assess progress toward the conference's 20-year plan-of-action, the United Nations has held a series of discussions. One of these International Forums for "review and appraisal" took place from 8-12 February 1999 in The Hague, Netherlands. The meeting examined countries' achievements since the Cairo agreement, identifying successes, constraints to be overcome, and priorities.
The Forum, organized by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and hosted by the Dutch Government, was attended by approximately 2000 participants, including ministers and other high-level government officials, parliamentarians, representatives of UN specialized agencies, international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), youth, and the media. Nearly 150 non-governmental organizations convened to assess the progress of programs aimed to slow global population growth. The proceedings were dominated by discussions on how to achieve women's rights to quality and affordable family planning, education and economic improvements; reproductive health and services; and protection from discrimination and violence.
In a rare moment of leadership on behalf of the United States, First Lady Hillary Clinton delivered an inspirational and forthright keynote address at the conference, calling on volunteer agencies to continue to work toward slowing global population growth. She urged them to persevere in the face of dwindling financial support. Since United States population-planning funds peaked at $600 million in 1995, spending has been slashed by almost 40 percent. Participants were encouraged, though, when Mrs. Clinton promised some increased funding from the United States. This year, the United States will spend $385 million.
She recalled that the world had agreed in Cairo that choice, not coercion or control, creates smaller families and slower population growth, and that respect for women's rights must be part of efforts to improve the quality of life. She reaffirmed the US Government's commitment to implementing the conference goals and announced President Clinton's proposal to commit $25 million as a voluntary contribution to UNFPA next year. She stressed the need to make abortion safe, legal and rare, and to reduce teenage pregnancy. She said women's childbearing decisions should be made freely and responsibly without government coercion. She underscored the need to invest in human resources and give equal access to reproductive health services to all women. She called for sustained commitment from all partners, especially from youth, who will bear the responsibility in the next century.
Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla, former chair of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and a Forum Advisory Board member noted, some indicators of progress: "Momentum is growing worldwide for the idea that women are "ends and not means, subjects, not objects," he said. "World silence on sexual matters has been broken, so that discussion can be more open on sensitive matters such as unsafe abortion and female genital mutilation. Divergent views on unsafe abortion must be respected," he said, "but you cannot keep the issue under the carpet when 20 million women every year are victims of this violence. Partnerships among governments, local groups and the private sector are working, so that each sees the 'value added' of working with the others."
We all need to see that value when it comes to dealing with growth - what works, how to talk about it and how to deal with it.
Global population has doubled since 1960. As the demand for smaller families has increased and access to safe and accessible contraception has improved, fertility levels have declined. But more than 150 million couples still have what population professionals refer to as an "unmet need" for reproductive health education and services. Recourse to abortion has declined dramatically in countries where contraceptive access and acceptance have increased, but it remains a serious problem.
Overall, population continues to grow by 77 million people a year. UN officials also unhelpfully note that this is the same as the population of France, Greece and Sweden combined, or like adding a city the size of San Francisco every three days. Where are we going to put them? 97% of future population growth is projected to occur in developing countries, including our close neighbor, Mexico.
The UN projects high, medium and low population growth scenarios for the next half-century. The high scenario - which hopefully assumes a continuing slowing of fertility rates - shows 10.7 billion people on the earth by 2050. The medium calculation, regarded as most likely, assumes fertility rates fall somewhat faster, would give 8.9 billion people. The "low" projection, which is considered "unlikely" would mean that women would be bearing fewer than two children each worldwide over their lifetimes and would give a global population of 7.3 billion - an increase of more than another billion souls.
Part of the reason for circumspection is the fact that, for the first time ever, there are more than one billion young people between the ages of 15-24, the largest number of people to ever enter their prime reproductive ages at all once. The future of population growth is truly in their hands, minds and bodies.