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Population is a matter of people

Published by The Earth Times on 1997-09-01

President Clinton's address at the United Nations yesterday was heartening to everybody who shares his support for promoting sustainable economic development and environmental security. But the President missed an opportunity to highlight the root cause of many global economic, social and environmental maladies: population growth that is still alarmingly high in countries that can least afford such growth.

Mr. Clinton is surely aware that the world adds 100 million people each year, mostly in the 127 countries of the third world. At this rate, global population, now nearly 5.9 billion, will climb to 8 billion by the year 2010. Such numbers contribute significantly to environmental degradation, and deteriorating health, education and municipal services. Rapid deforestation--another bane of the third world-- has resulted from the fact that 70 percent of families in poor countries rely on wood as their sole source of fuel. Lack of access to potable water is increasingly posing hazards to children in the developing world. More than 31,000 children under the age of five die each year from preventable diseases. And despite all the cheerful talk in the financial community about globalization, job creation simply hasn't keep pace with population growth. Is it any wonder, then, that more than a third of the world's people lives below the poverty line--defined as percapita income of less than the equivalent of $350 annually.

Notwithstanding Mr. Clinton's endorsement of sustainable economic development, the United States seems to have relinquished its leadership on the global population issue. Its annual assistance to the UN Population Fund--perhaps one of the most efficient field organizations in the multilateral system--has been suspended by the Republican-dominated Congress on ideological grounds. The House of Representatives just last week voted heavily against renewing such aid, not only for UNFPA but also for private-sector organizations such as the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation. The reason? That these organizations implicitly endorse abortion because they give assistance to countries such as China, where abortions are performed. Both UNFPA and IPPF insist that support of abortion is not their policy, but that falls on deaf ears in Congress.

Each year, 24 million women enter the child-bearing stage in poor countries, and a vast majority of them do not have access to adequate family planning services. Why doesn't Mr. Clinton underscore this? Instead, what we heard from him yesterday was an emphasis on free markets, on entrepreneurship, on access to capital--as if repeating these mantras will miraculously foster a new environment of growth and change in languishing societies. Of course, he did sympathize with the victims of globalization, the "have-nots," but much too often the Clinton Administration hasn't dared to rise beyond its rhetoric and go to mat for development programs in an insensitive Congress.

Global poverty cannot be wished away. It's fine for the private sector to invest in Nike factories, but where's the much-needed investment in social development? What's needed desperately is slowing population growth through more attention to reproductive health, education for girls, and employment for women. An important new study by Population Action International, a Washington think-tank, has shown that greater access to schooling for girls and young women leads to lower birth rates; a secondary school education often results in later marriages. The PAI study shows, for example, that a Peruvian woman who has completed 10 years of education typically has two or three children, while a woman with no formal education has up to 10 children. Smaller families often mean better health-care for children and enhanced economic prospects for adults.

But donor countries are lessening their assistance to developing nations: the figure for 1996 was barely $50 billion, almost $10 billion less than five years earlier. The U.S., a traditional leader in population issues, spends less than $1.50 per person for population aid to developing countries, and the ideological sentiment in Congress favors shrinking such aid.

Strengthening population and reproductive-health programs, and creating better education and job opportunities for women, are a worthy way of investing in people's wellbeing and, indeed, the national health of developing countries. Population growth in the third world has dramatically increased the numbers of the poor, and not that of people with purchasing power for goods promoted by American and other Western exporters. Both President Clinton and the U.S. Congress should be mindful that growing numbers don't add up to growing markets.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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