Blinded by figures

  • 30/07/1993

Blinded by figures AFTER years of trying to make family planning enthusiasts understand that population control is not merely condoms, pills and other birth control devices, next year's international conference on population in Cairo nevertheless looks like it will be dominated by, well, condoms, pills and other birth control devices.

The second preparatory meeting for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (IPCD), which was held in New York in May 1993, was an indication of things to come. It concerned itself mostly with contraceptive delivery or, in the jargon of the family planning movement, "access to services". The latter phrase is preferred because it suggests public demand rather than government control, and it is with such subtleties of wording and meaning that international meetings are concerned.

At the preparatory meeting, Northern countries were motivated by their identification of population growth as a development bottleneck and by their desire to curb the growing number of people in the developing world. The current world population stands at five billion, and is growing at a rate of 1.7 per cent every year. At the present rate of growth, the world will add a sixth billion to its population in the next 15 years, 775 million of which will be in the South. Several delegates said that wealthy economies were as vulnerable to the consequences of runaway global population growth as they were to the impact of potential runaway climatic changes.

Southern countries at the meet were motivated by a desire to avoid cuts in Northern aid for family planning programmes and imposition of more conditions on aid.

The complex interactions between population and sustainable development and between population and environment and the even more contentious issue of identifying Northern consumption as a bigger problem than Southern numbers, barely got a look in. The chairperson's end-of-the-meet statement on the conceptual framework carefully omitted all connections between population, environment and consumption.

The developing countries that were most active at the conference -- India, Pakistan, Colombia and Brazil -- argued that such issues were being dealt with in the conventions on biological diversity, climate change and desertification, which were agreed upon at last year's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and that there was no need to duplicate those negotiations. As the head of the Indian delegation, Usha Vohra, succinctly put it: "There's no need to renegotiate on issues settled in Rio."

The plethora of non-government organisations (NGOs) in attendance at New York were themselves divided on a number of issues, including those concerned primarily with contraceptive delivery, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and those taking a more holistic view of population issues.

Even women's groups lost an opportunity to bargain in favour of a more holistic solution to the world's population problems. On one issue, however, they were united -- their opposition to the inclusion in the proposed document of a chapter on "The family, its role and composition". Traditional families, they argued, often placed women in a subservient position, and they feared the chapter could be used to undermine individual rights, women's decisions and women's reproductive rights.

The only person who refused to get bogged down by the numbers argument was Nafis Sadik, head of the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), who counselled that "nations should eliminate the concept of targets and quotas in family planning programmes to prevent actual and apparent abuse and apparent coercion. We have been advising governments against quotas for national goals."

Part of Sadik's intention was to pacify US fears of harsh population control methods and lure it back into the UNFPA fold. Former President George Bush withdrew US funding to UNFPA on the grounds that it supported abortion and coercive pressure for family planning in China, where as a result of an intensive government campaign, the fertility rate is now as low as in industrialised countries. Current White House incumbent Bill Clinton has expressed his intention to resume funding, but wants an assurance that the organisation will not support coercion.

A lot is at stake for UNFPA. If it can hook the US, it stands to receive a generous slice of the annual $100 million a year the country allocates in its budget for population. So, a great deal of interest was shown in New York at the position of the US administration. The biggest shock to the international population movement in recent years was former President Ronald Reagan's abrupt reversal of US policy -- from one of almost indiscriminate pushing of contraceptives to identification of family planning programmes with socialism and the enunciation of the philosophy that rapid population growth was a spur rather than a barrier to economic growth. According to Reagan, the period of most rapid economic growth in the US had coincided with the time when its population grew fastest and, according to him, there was no reason why other nations would not share the same experience.

Reagan's policy shift shocked the 1984 international population conference for it turned conventional wisdom on its head. So, it is not surprising that Clinton's policy has been awaited eagerly. This, plus the issue of US aid to UNFPA, guaranteed the US delegation at New York, headed by Timothy E Wirth, an attentive hearing. Another factor that captured the conference's attention, was, as Tanzanian delegate Noah Musyani put it, "the realisation that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US agenda and US priorities will henceforth be interpreted as the global population concerns."

In other words, the US calls the shots. Wirth's line was not as sensational as Reagan's about-turn (though a US delegate described it as "a transformation"), but his call for recognition of individual reproductive rights and women's empowerment was widely interpreted as a return to full support for global family planning programmes. As a member of the British delegation commented, "Funds should now flow for the US model of solving population problems. In other words, for family planning."

Funding problems
The US position was at least partially a response to the opening plea of chairperson Fred Sai, of Ghana, for "money, money, money" to rein in runaway population growth in the South. But presidential requests for funds often get bogged down in Congress and the Senate, which may well whittle away the $100 million for fiscal 1994 requested by Clinton.

The emphasis on money and family planning was disliked by a number of countries, such as the Nordic nations, USA, Nigeria and Brazil, and many Southern NGOs, who felt related issues, such as women's nutrition, education and legal rights had been sidelined.

Carol Narcisse from the Association of Development Agencies in Jamaica, for example, said US support for access to services had come in the shape of reproductive rights, choice and legalisation of abortion, which were US priorities, while the South would rather have more infrastructure-building. "The problem is that the North isn't interested in long-term goals and infrastructure is more expensive."

Alpa Vora of Youth for Voluntary Action, a Bombay NGO, stressed that "in the South, numbers is not the name of the game, women's issues are not just issues of the womb". She expressed surprise that India, as vice-chair of the 1994 conference, "is insistent on focussing the conference on family planning measures".

Many Southern participants wanted the conference to reflect their belief in the need for a more equitable world order, which in terms of the population debate, harks back to the need for changes in Northern lifestyles and consumption patterns along with curbs on population growth in the South. This is a bone of contention that almost derailed the Earth Summit because of George Bush's insistence that "the US way of life" was not up for negotiation.

The new US administration's line is more complex. Wirth echoed concerns about the removal of references in conference texts to developmental concerns, but came out with a fighting defence of US measures, such as the Clean Air Act and proposed legislation on energy conservation and surface transport, as proof of initiatives to make the world a better place in which to live. "I challenge any country in the world to have the same commitment to changing consumption patterns that we have shown in the last three or four years."

Experienced UN-watchers point out that by highlighting the importance of the availability of contraception and by then emphasising sound US environmental actions, Wirth was indirectly linking environmental degradation with population growth -- a position that once again gets Northern consumption off the hook.

Along with births and deaths, migration is the third component of demographic change, and will certainly get a mention in the Cairo "consensus document". The problem in achieving consensus is that countries have such different concerns: Patricia McFradden said migration was productive for the North, but meant depletion for the South. Noufissa Sbai from Morocco focussed on the issue of migration in the Maghreb. Several Southern governments felt that the whole issue of international migration was overplayed since migration had accounted for no more than a 0.7 per cent rise in Europe's population in the past 15 years, but others saw the issue as having a major impact on Western economies, particularly following the break-up of the Soviet bloc.

An IPCD secretariat official felt opening markets to free trade would in the long run reduce migration, while Jocelyn Dow of the Women's Development Programme of Guyana argued that US pressure on the Caribbean to open its market to rice would hit farmers in Guyana, where the population is already declining because of emigration.

And, if a satisfactory form of wording is agreed for this and other issues -- abortion, indigenous peoples, AIDS and adolescent sexuality -- Cairo, when all is said and done, will be just another conference with a vaguely worded declaration. Nevertheless, the declaration is important, not in terms of the few extra dollars that might be generated for population activities around the world, but in terms of the overall intellectual framework in which global decisions are taken, particularly within the UN and in national aid programmes.

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