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Remember the "population bomb"?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-31

NEW DELHI - The name of Mr Rafael M. Salas of the Philippines may not mean much to contemporary everyday audiences, mostly because he's been dead for nearly 20 years. But more than any other man, Mr Salas was responsible for creating global anxiety over population growth in the Third World. His sympathisers - such as Mr Paul Ehrlich, the American academician - went around warning about the "population bomb" - how the world's yellows and browns and blacks, if left to their supposedly libidinous proclivities, would overrun white Western civilisation.

Of course, the dire scenario did not materialise. The current world population of 6.4 billion scarcely burdens the earth's carrying capacity; technological advances and the abundance of untapped natural resources ensure that even with the world adding 100 million people each year, "overpopulation" isn't going result in Malthusian famines and related catastrophes. But try telling this to the United Nations and its clueless financial supporters in the Nordic countries - and elsewhere in Europe - who continue hammering on the theme of the ticking population bomb.

The UN and the Nordics - however unintentionally - assisted Mr Salas in generating one of the biggest scams to hit the international community, one that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars to sustain bureaucracies and nongovernmental organisations supposedly dedicated to population control and reproductive health. And even though some countries such as the United States have discontinued support for population control - including forced abortions in countries such as China - the global population scam is today bigger than ever. Between UN expenditures and those of individual governments and NGOs, some US$11 billion is spent each year on population-related matters.

That's more than a fourth of what all 135 countries of the Third World receive annually in foreign aid, and almost a tenth of what they get each year in foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign institutional investment (FII) in their equity markets.

And the great population scam is all set to enter a new stage.

Starting tomorrow (Tuesday), thousands of politicians, diplomats, civil society leaders and academicians will gather in London's Queen Elizabeth II Convention Hall for a three-day conference to lament the world's allegedly rapid population growth. They are flying first-class or business-class, they are being put up in luxurious lodgings, they are being feted at toney restaurants - and international taxpayers are footing the bill for the extravaganza. There's little doubt that the participants will authorise the creation of yet another mechanism for lucrative jobs for favoured Third Worlders to attend to the twin "problems" of population and development.

Here's how the population scam works: The en vogue nomenclature is no longer "population control." That's because many African and Asian countries - formerly colonies of European powers - objected to the phrase on the grounds that it suggested neo-colonialism. The favoured phrase of the day is "reproductive health." It was popularised at the UN's population conference in Cairo in 1994; the London meeting, in fact, marks the 10th anniversary of the Cairo talk fest.

And what does "reproductive health" mean? Anything you wish. It could refer to women's sexual systems. It could imply cures for male impotency. It could refer to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It could suggest sex education for teenagers. It could call into play the global mantra of "safe sex," which is to say, the use of condoms as protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

The UN and its NGO allies - such as the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Washington-based Population Action International - have now cleverly linked the question of reproductive health to that of sustainable economic development. The argument, stripped to its bare essentials, is: A poor nation cannot progress unless its population size is commensurate with the country's ability to provide adequate education, employment and municipal services.

The solution? Distribution of more condoms and the Pill; sex education at schools; better public awareness of infectious sexual malignancies. The new nomenclature is "social development," which incorporates both reproductive health and sustainable economic growth.

And who should be the ones entrusted with this weighty task of promoting social development? Agencies such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA); the IPPF; the PAI; and, of course, bilateral agencies in the Nordic countries. For them all, the central villain du jour is the Bush Administration, which has withheld financial support to the UNFPA and the IPPF on the grounds that they, tacitly at least, condone abortion in poor countries - however vigourously these organisations deny the charge.

At the London conference, there will be calls to create an international super-agency to coordinate global efforts concerning social development. There's plenty of money available for this new bureaucracy; the Nordics, the Dutch and the Japanese have informally pledged millions of dollars. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines may chip in. Even conservative Saudi Arabia - whose citizen, Mrs Thoraya Obaid, heads the UNFPA - is likely to cough up cash. The smooth-talking convener of the London meeting, Mr Steven W. Sinding, has already emerged as the leading candidate of the new global agency.

Is it really necessary to create yet another bureaucracy? My own experience of more than three decades in covering population and development issues suggests that Third World countries don't need the altruism of foreign bodies and their highly compensated consultants. It's culturally insulting - and historically erroneous - to say that poor people everywhere will keep producing children because of unrestrained libidos.

Four critical elements are necessary to accelerate sustainable development in poor nations: the mobilisation of domestic resources by the private sector, such as what India and some other Third World countries are successfully doing; the inflow of more foreign direct investment for strengthening infrastructure and expanding manufacturing and agro-business; more foreign and local investment in securities markets; and the widening of education, particularly of the girl child. Anthropology suggests that people will always respond positively to economic and educational opportunities - and adjust family size accordingly. Few parents wish to have children whom they cannot feed.

It is impossible for me to end an essay like this without a personal disclosure. For three decades I have known the leading dramatis personae of the population and development business. Some of them became friends. But in the end, many of them turned out to be frauds, however clever, however charming. For them, social development has meant self-aggrandisement. This international class of povertycrats, regrettably, has only a promising future to look forward to.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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