Singing the Benefits Of Family Planning

NANCY WALLACE called the other evening, singing away with great enthusiasm. Ms. Wallace, who works for the Sierra Club and is one of the main foot soldiers in the fight to control global population growth, just had to spread the news that a "major heroic shift" had occurred in United States population policy.

Specifically, Congress had just approved a 30 percent increase (about $105 million) in US spending for family-planning materials, services, and education. Experts figure it takes about $16 per couple per year for family planning, so that means another 6.5 million families will have access to the relatively cheap and uncomplicated things they need (and want) to do their part in controlling population.

That's the good news. The continuing challenge is that hundreds of millions more are denied family planning, either because their own backward governments discourage it or because developed countries like the United States do less than they should.

For example, the US was one of 79 countries to sign the so-called "Amsterdam Declaration" in 1989, which said annual spending by all countries for population activities should rise to $9 billion annually by the year 2000. This would increase by 64 percent the number of couples with access to contraception.

This also would mean that Uncle Sam would have to boost spending to about $650 million a year or, as Wallace likes to point out, just two-thirds of the price tag of one stealth bomber. The cost is well worth it, and not just in terms of the increasing numbers of people. (More numbers: Current world population is about 5.4 billion. That will more than double to 12 billion before the end of the next century, even if birthrates continue to taper off, or shoot to 14 billion or more if they don't.)

At the same time, much more is involved in controlling population growth (and the environmental damage that results) than handing out pamphlets and condoms. In a recent report by the WorldWatch Institute, Jodi Jacobson gets to the real root of the problem: social, economic, and political bias against women. This, she calls "the population trap."

In countries where a total of about 3 billion people live at the subsistence level, women are the primary family breadwinners in terms of food, fuel, and water. "Yet women's efforts to support their children are all too often stymied," writes Ms. Jacobson. "Gender bias in subsistence economies ranges from wage discrimination, to exclusion from development programs, to legal barriers to owning land, to systematic violence against women."

"In effect," she goes on, "many of the policies and programs carried out in the name of development actually increase women's dependency on children as a source of status and security. Moreover, environmental degradation triggered by misguided government policies is itself causing rapid population growth, in part as a result of women's economically rational response to increasing demands on their time caused by resource scarcity." Here, she's talking about foreign aid and international lending institutio ns, as well as national policies.

In many ways, the situation is getting worse. For example, while overall literacy rates around the world are inching up, the gap between men and women who can read and write is widening. Between 1970 and the mid-80s, the number of illiterate men grew by 4 million. During the same period, the number of illiterate women around the world rose 54 million. I heard more than one official at the Earth Summit in Brazil last summer say that the most important factor in reducing world population growth rates would

be to increase female literacy.

The Earth Summit's official name was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The point of intersection for these two important issues - protecting the environment and providing sustainable economic development for those countries known collectively as the "South" - is where population enters the political and diplomatic equation.

Without more effort on family planning around the world, true and lasting progress can't be made on either. The 30 percent increase in US spending for such programs is worth singing about. But it will take a lot more foresight and resources to finish the job.

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