New Internationalist

Cracks and Chasms

Issue 079

Recently, the representatives of over 60 of the world’s governments met in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to discuss the issue of world population. The bureaucratic purpose of the conference, which was organised by the U.N. Fund for Population Activities was to adopt a Declaration on the Role of Parliamentarians in Population and Development. The real purpose was to focus public attention on, and educate parliamentarians in, the new knowledge which has been gleaned about the population issue since the first World Population Conference in Bucharest, Rumania, exactly five years ago.

Perceptions on population issues have changed dramatically within a decade. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s population pundits like Paul and Anne Ehrlich began to panic. They persuaded the public that the population explosion was bound to cause mass famines, the overloading of the environment, widespread unrest and revolution, and a shoulder-to­shoulder planet of 8 billion people by the end of this century and up to 80 billion by the end of the next. The only hope, it was suggested, was a massive contraceptive campaign to reduce the fertility of the poor masses in the Third World.

The world was impressed. Organisations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Zero Population Growth, the Population Crisis Committee, Friends of the Earth, and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities were all born or grew up apace in this period. And millions of dollars were suddenly made available for population studies and family planning programmes.

But in the early 1970’s the counter-attack began. Voices began to be raised against the idea that poverty was the fault of population growth and that population growth was the fault of the improvident poor. Resentment welled up in the Third World and its representatives began to argue the case that population growth was more a result of poverty than a cause. Desperately poor people, they maintained, often needed many children because they had no other form of security in illness or old age; no other kind of help in fields and homes; no comparable source of joy and pride and change in lives that were often stagnant with poverty. Given the importance of children to the poor, and given the fact that up to half of their children could be expected to die before the age of five, it was hardly surprising that the poor families of the developing countries had, on average, twice as many children as the rich families in the industrialised world. Pressing this argument home, they pointed to the indisputable fact that birth rates had fallen dramatically in the industrialised countries after living standards had begun to rise and long before the widespread availability of cheap and effective contraceptives. Only when the quality of life began to rise in the developing countries would the birth rates begin to fall. Only when parents could be sure that they and their children would be better off with smaller families and that the children they gave birth to would survive into adulthood would they be interested in contraception.

At the Bucharest World Conference these arguments, which were often expressed through and supported by the UNFPA itself, carried the day. And the family planners from the industrialised countries received a rap over the knuckles.

But the debate which boiled over in Bucharest merely simmered in Colombo. Most, if not all, of the governments in the industrialised world recognised that a rising quality of life is an essential prerequisite of a falling rate of births. And most of the developing world’s governments recognised that making the knowledge and techniques of family planning available to all is an essential part of their development strategies. At Colombo there was no talk of population ‘explosions’, ‘tidal waves’, ‘juggernauts’, or ‘time-bombs’. And the Conference title was Population and Development.

So in five short years a degree of consensus has emerged on the causes and consequences of population growth, its relationship to economic development, and what should be done about it.

But despite this, population somehow manages to remain an emotional and divisive issue in the discussion of which tempers still flare and basic political differences are still exposed. For in the end population is not a technical subject. It is an intensely personal and political issue. And the hair-line cracks of differences in opinion over technicalities often hide chasms of difference in motivation. And if the industrialised world does not understand the resentment which still smoulders in the Third World over the population debate, then perhaps it had better be bluntly spelled out.

If the industrialised world shows no concern over the fact that the Third World, with over 80 per cent of the world’s people, still has only 10 per cent of the world’s income and if it takes no action to redress this balance by reducing its own "consumption explosion" and allowing the developing countries to earn a fairer share of the world’s income, then its concern over population growth is exposed as concern only for maintaining its own privileged position within an international order which perpetuates poverty in the developing world.

And if the industrialised world is still more interested in discussing population and funding family planning programmes than it is in negotiating a new international economic order, helping to finance buffer stocks and commodity agreements, and opening its markets to the manufactured goods of the developing countries, then it reveals itself as much more interested in reducing the numbers of the poor than in reducing poverty itself.

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