Editor's Blog: Wasted years

Posted: 30 June 2009

More than a decade after the world agreed a progressive agenda on population and development at the 1994 Cairo conference on the subject, today's leaders are waking up to the reality of 15 wasted years.

Cairo was almost unique in costing the money needed to tackle the developing world’s scandalously high maternal mortality and morbidity rates, setting out the spending needed on reproductive health and family planning, alongside other priorities for the health, status and education of girls and women in particular.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the joint meeting of the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty countries. (Photo courtesy State Dept.)
But as a new investigation, reported on this website, shows, the funding for international family planning programmes has actually fallen by 30 per cent since the mid-1990s. (See: Family planning: myths versus facts). It has done so in the face of persistent opposition from conservative governments and the Vatican, and a false impression that with falling fertility rates the global population problem was no longer a priority. Only now, with a new president in the White House whose first acts included restoring funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a US Secretary of State, in Hillary Clinton, concerned particularly with the 'plight of women and girls', and growing concern over the impact of climate change on water and food supplies, is the world reawakening to the reality of population over-shoot.

The wake up is taking many forms. At the United Nations, the Commission on Population and Development finally got round last week to revising dramatically upwards the investments needed for population programmes, though still earmarking more for tackling AIDS than for the closely-related; and more cost effective spending on family planning and maternal health. After 15 years of inaction the United Nations recognised “the dire need to increase the financial resources for the implementation” of the Cairo Programme, with particular concern for family planning, spending on which was 'far below requirements'. (See: $65 billion needed for population work says UN commission.

World footprint
World footprint
Credit: Global Footprint Network
In Britain, the latest conference of the Optimum Population Trust, of which Sir David Attenborough has now become a patron, was widely reported. (See: Family planning surge could make population difference). And in the House of Commons a full-scale debate on global population growth brought an admission from Ivan Lewis, Under-Secretary of State for International Development, that the US change of policy on population had been 'desperately required'. The issue, he said, had been kept in the 'too difficult' box for too long. "Rapid population growth must be openly discussed and sensitively tackled, with the provision of support for those governments who are already concerned and ready to take action."

Much time has been lost in pursuing a win-win anti-poverty strategy which would help stabilise human numbers, especially in those poor countries where over 95 per cent of the growth is taking place and where natural resources and public services are most stressed, while helping mothers to give birth safely to the children they want. Let's hope politicians really do open up that too difficult box and get on with the job, before James Lovelock's Gaia takes its own revenge.

John Rowley

PS: On 17 April, PBS television in the United States aired a one-hour programme called On Thin Ice which graphically tells the story of the world's shrinking glaciers, and especially those in the Himalayas which regulate the flow of the Ganges River, the source of life for many millions of people in the Indian Subcontinent. You can see a video clip of this programme here.