The population clock keeps ticking after Cairo

After reaching consensus on how to halt growth of the human family, nations are now starting to back their convictions with cash

IN the eight weeks since the giant - and by most accounts, successful - United Nations population conference was adjourned in Cairo, the human family has grown by 16 million.

In an atmosphere of urgency created by such growth, the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 17 and 18 is scheduled to debate and approve the final draft of the conference's comprehensive ``Program of Action,'' a 20-year blueprint for stabilizing world population and fostering economic and social development.

Not content to wait on such formalities, dozens of governments, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and thousands of individual activists have already begun gearing up for the daunting task of translating the recommendations of the 113-page document into specific programs.

``There's much greater consensus and clarity now about what needs to be done,'' says a senior World Bank official. ``The objectives of the Cairo document are concrete and achievable.''

The plan of action calls on nations to provide ``universal access to a full range of safe and reliable family-planning methods and to related reproductive health services'' by the year 2015. In a dramatic departure from past population manifestos, it says elevating the status of women is a prerequisite to further reducing population growth rates.

Population experts say two elements are indispensable if the recommendations of the Cairo document are to be implemented soon enough to stabilize global population by the mid-21st century: money and political pressure.

Galvanized by the Cairo meeting - formally called the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) - a number of wealthy industrial donor nations, led by Japan, Britain, Germany, and the United States - have announced major increases in population funding in foreign- aid programs.

``In the months surrounding Cairo, there's been a sea change in the willingness to commit money to population programs,'' says J. Joseph Speidel, president of Population Action International (PAI), a private advocacy group in Washington.

Given public resistance to spending money on foreign aid, donor nations will have a difficult time making up the shortfall between current commitments and their recommended share of the $17 billion needed by the year 2000 to pay for family-planning and reproductive-health services.

To help bridge the gap, US officials have begun pressing other rich nations in various meetings to dig deeper to pay for what they believe is the most cost-effective use of foreign aid.

``Nine times out of 10 this [money] is one of the subjects we raise,'' says a State Department official.

Meanwhile, representatives of Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nations will meet in Paris in late November to talk about providing more money for population programs recommended in Cairo.

The World Bank is also indirectly supporting efforts to limit population growth by increasing its spending on child and maternal-health programs, and education for girls - programs which demonstrably lower fertility.

The `20/20' formula

Even if the wealthy Western donors meet their share of the $17 billion, it is still unclear whether developing countries will be able to come up with theirs. Though they largely support the long-term goals of the Cairo document, poor nations are often overwhelmed by short-term needs for food, jobs, and housing.

The issue will be revisited next March when the UN's World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen will debate a controversial ``20/20'' spending formula that was shelved in Cairo. Under the plan, donor nations would commit 20 percent of foreign aid and developing countries would commit 20 percent of their domestic budgets to social spending.

``If everyone put more money into the social sector it would make the challenge of meeting the Cairo funding goals that much easier,'' says Sally Ethelston, a spokeswoman for PAI.

Political push is as important as money. And that is coming from thousands of NGOs that have already begun organizing to monitor implementation of the Cairo document.

Before the start of the Cairo conference, NGOs helped write the draft version of the program of action, often at the request of national governments. ``That set the stage for collaboration after the conference simply because the NGOs are so much a part of the process,'' notes the Rockefeller Foundation's director of population sciences, Steven Sinding.

Before leaving Cairo, women's groups formed an international watchdog committee called ``Women Watching ICPD.'' Bella Abzug, co-chairwoman of the founding organization, the Women's Environment and Development Organization, says the group will be looking at how national governments and multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the UN allocate their resources and keeping the pressure on to integrate women's health and development into population programs.

Between 400 and 500 organizations are already linked into the worldwide network.

``We want to see that donor agencies actually change policies, laws, and budget priorities in order to implement what's laid out in the Program of Action,'' Ms. Abzug says.

The Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) has set up another small but growing international oversight group that is now working with partner organizations in Kenya and India to monitor policy and design women's empowerment programs.

``NGOs are going to drive the policies of the future because they understand how the process works, because they have seized the opportunity to participate in it, and because they are empowered,'' says CEDPA's communications director Marjorie Signer. ``They have fire in the belly.''

NGOs will also make an indirect imprint on population policy when they gather in Beijing next September for the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women. A plan of action similar to the one approved in Cairo will seek to advance female empowerment, including access to education, health care, legal rights - all of which influence women's childbearing decisions.

Although contraceptive use has increased and average family size has decreased since the advent of the family-planning revolution a quarter of a century ago, current annual increments of population growth - 95 million - are the highest in human history.

Many demographers are worried that such huge increases will overtax ecosystems and create demands for food, housing, and jobs that governments in poor developing countries will be unable to meet.

That was one concern that prompted the UN to convene the conference in Cairo, where representatives from 180 nations and more than 1,000 NGOs met for nine days last September.

From South to North

The quest to further slow population growth rates has also been given impetus by an innovative idea that was formally christened in Cairo. Known as the ``South-South Initiative,'' it provides a way for nations that have established successful family-planning programs to transfer ideas, experience, and technical assistance to nations where family-planning efforts are still in the formative stage.

Ten nations, including Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico, and Tunisia, are behind the initiative and will meet in Zimbabwe in April to establish a secretariat.

Backers of the idea say advice on population programs goes down easier when it comes from other developing nations rather than wealthy Western democracies. A model of how the initiative might operate is provided by Indonesia, which is currently helping Vietnam train field workers, design a system to deliver contraceptives, and plan a public outreach program.

The Cairo meeting was the latest in a series of decennial population conferences, the first of which was held in 1974.

Population experts say it is likely to have the greatest long-term impact because developing nations themselves have been a driving force behind the conference and the document it produced.

``This was not a document [developing nations] signed to get extra money from us or the World Bank,'' says Alex Marshall, chief of media services at UNFPA. ``It's their document. They shaped it to do what they want to do. So to that extent it's much more likely to be implemented.''

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