Rhein on Energy and Climate

The arrival of President OBAMA on the global political scene will lead to a thorough re-assessment and redirection of US foreign policy.

One area where this redirection is overdue is international population policy. For the Bush Administration global population growth was not an issue. The White House ignored it. Never mind the increase of world population by 500 million people, the equivalent of the EU population, during its eight year term. It was only logical for the Bush Administration to cut US contributions to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), because of the Fund’s support of China’s one child family approach.

World population continues to grow at an unsustainable rate, close to 80 million every year. Contrary to the general perception, it has hardly declined during the past 20 years. AIDS has led to a slight population decline in southern Africa, but its impact on global population growth has been more than compensated by world-wide improvements in medical care.
With average fertility rates continuing to exceed 5children per woman, Sub-Sahara Africa is the single biggest contributor to global population growth.

There is a general consensus that global population growth is one of the driving forces the behind the deterioration of living conditions on earth, from over-exploitation of scarce water resources to deforestation of tropical forests and over-grazing. With an additional two billion human beings at the horizon of 2050 having to share the increasingly scarce vital resources of our planet, the state of our planet will come under increasing stress. Most people with a basic understanding of the world subscribe to the need for stabilising global population at the earliest possible date and the lowest possible level, say 8 billion by 2030.

Despite our improved understanding of demographic developments and determinants, humanity has dramatically failed to take the necessary action for curbing population growth.

Individual countries have acted successfully, independent of their religion, political regime or level of economic development: Tunisia, Iran, China and Bangladesh are outstanding examples, demonstrating that it is possible to reduce the fertility rate to the replacement level (2.2) within one generation, provided there is political will to overcome the opposition from religious and conservative leaders and make the fight against over-population a priority.

The key ingredients for successfully curbing population growth are threefold: inform women (and men!) about the basics of reproductive health, make contraceptives freely accessible to every woman and improve child care and maternal health. 20 percent of births in developing countries are unwanted! This is unacceptably high.

Many countries, in particular in sub-Sahara Africa, do not have the financial resources to engage in effective programmes of reproductive health and family planning. They depend on external financial assistance, which is dramatically lacking. Donor countries have failed to respect the commitments taken, in particular at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (994). Instead of the $ 7 billion the international community had committed to provide annually to reproductive health programmes, no more than a few hundred millions per year have come forth.

The EU has not done better than the USA. Reproductive health has long ceased to be a priority in its aid policy.

It is urgent to reverse the trend. Reproductive health must become a top priority for international cooperation alongside with basic education.
Every developing country should be able to draw on sufficient funding from bilateral or preferably multilateral sources to finance whatever population programmes it considers to be necessary.
The USA is expected to resume its financial contributions to the UNFPA in 2009. That would be a positive signal for the EU and others to follow suit.

But more than financial resources is needed. The success of any population policy depends crucially on the moral support from religious leaders. It is high time for the Catholic Church to rethink its stand on controlled parenthood and the use of contraceptives. EU political leaders must therefore engage in a critical dialogue with the Vatican on this vital issue for humanity. A start must be made to convince the Church of the need to curb population growth in the interest of the Creation.

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  1. While it is certainly important that health services, education and low or no cost reproductive control methods be made to available to women (and men!) in less developed areas, it is equally important to realize that world population size is exactly that – WORLD population size. Areas that have low reproductive rates, e.g., some parts of Europe, should not be openly moaning about it. They should not try to subsidize births locally while calling for decreases in birth rates elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that anyplace where there is now a low birthrate, it is a victory that should be celebrated – at least until there is a significant impact on the availability of labor worldwide.

    Not only is a population size of 7 billion, not to mention 9 billion or more, unnecessarily large, such population sizes cause serious difficulties in achieving the quality of life that any and every human deserves, including access to space and biological resources. Those who love humanity want to see our population size come down!

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