George Gelber, Head of the Policy Unit at CAFOD, examines the issues behind next week's International Population Conference, where world leaders may propose policies guaranteed to raise the Vatican's ire
THERE ARE 5.66 billion people in the world. In the five minutes it takes you to read this article they will have been joined by another 900 or so. In the next year almost 100 million more will be added to world population. Long range projections, which assume moderately declining fertility, put world population at 8.5 billion by the year 2025. Without a decline in fertility, these figures could be much higher.
This is the background to the International Conference on Population and Development to be held in Cairo next week.
The subject matter sex, birth and children combines the most intimate aspects of personal behaviour with the most public and collective consequences and responsibilities.
No one denies that rapid population growth is not a cause for concern. And in recent years a consensus has emerged on the crucial issue of population growth and population policies between economists and demographers, health experts and social scientists, first and Third World governments and between Catholic and nonCatholic agencies.
There is agreement that good and effective population policy depends on development, for which economic growth is a necessary condition; on the education and empowerment of women; and on greater equality and dialogue between men and women, itself a necessary condition for the empowerment of all women.
These are the factors which influ
ence how many children people want and it is the number of children that people want, rather than unwanted children, which determines the rate of population growth.
Why do people want children? In the poorest countries children are not seen as mouths to feed but as a valuable resource: extra hands and legs to fetch water and firewood, to look after livestock, to scavenge on rubbish dumps or to beg, and ultimately, if they survive into adulthood, to care for their parents as they become unfit for work.
With development, families have to depend less on their children and will be more confident that more of them will grow up to become adults.
With development, education will become more important for children as it will enhance their chances in life.
If girls are being educated they are less likely to be pushed into early marriage and child-bearing; if women, as a consequence of education, provide a significant extra income for themselves and their families, they are more likely to want to space their children; if women are valued and empowered, they are more likely to obtain agreement from their husbands about the number of children they should have.
But women have a long way to go before they achieve equality with men: of the 960 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women; more than 15 million girls aged between 15 and 19 give birth every year; in all developing countries, boys attending secondary school out-number girls by 3 to 2 and at university, men outnumber women by 2 to 1.
This emerging consensus is now threatened by the debate on abortion which seems likely to dominate the Cairo conference.
There is no doubt, with up to 150,000 women worldwide dying every year as a consequence of botched abortions, that abortion is a major public health issue.
But it has no place in population policy.
With the unbending opposition of the Catholic Church among others to abortion in any circumstances and the inflamed debate which the issue arouses, it would have been wiser to put it to one side so that the conference could concentrate on the central issues of population and development.
No one will be saying at Cairo that we need not be concerned by population growth. No one will be saying complacently that there is enough food to feed everyone in the world this is technically true but it is usually in the wrong place.
In many places in the world precarious living standards are threatened by unsustainable rates of population growth as some of the world's poorest people, forced to seek short-term survival, destroy the environments on which their long term livelihood depends.
But, depending on who and where you are, these apparently straightforward arguments can look very different. From the comfort of an armchair in the industrialised world it appears common sense. But from a shanty-town in the Third World it can sound as if the rich of the industrialised world want only to safeguard their own unsustainable standards of living.
About 95 million children will be added to the world population this year five million in the industrialised countries and 90 million in the Third World but the five million will consume more of the world's resources in their lifetimes than the 90 million.
So, if the main reason for slowing population growth is to protect and conserve the environment, people in the rich world should be looking first at their own resource-hungry lifestyles.
The United Nations Population Fund warns that "... attempts to universalize the concept and practice of family planning by setting numerical targets or quotas are doomed to failure. In their haSte to pursue "optimal" population growth or some other goal, framers
of such policies ignore the elment of choice and the context in which those choices are made."
The Conference will see discussion about the availability of different methods of contraception, including natural family planning to which the Catholic Church among others wants more prominence to be given.