WHEN 10,000 delegates, nongovernmental experts, and journalists gather in Cairo Sept. 5 to 13 for the start of a United Nations megaconference on population, the big news will be controversy.
The stage is set in the Egyptian capital for a dramatic clash of cultures - between the Vatican and feminist groups.
But behind the big news will be the real news: When it comes to the whys and hows of slowing world population growth, consensus is broader than ever before. Without slower population growth, most Cairo-based experts agree, it will be nearly impossible to retrieve poor nations from the grip of underdevelopment.
``It's important to recognize just how far we've come,'' Sally Shelton, an assistant administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, told reporters recently.
``What we have in the run-up to Cairo ... is a clear and widespread consensus from every single corner of the globe and from all the various parties involved that rapid and unsustainable population growth is a critical issue in the area of development,'' she said.
The goal of the 10-day conference will be to finalize and ratify a draft 113-page ``Programme of Action,'' a 20-year blueprint for achieving population stabilization and other development objectives that was drafted by the UN after extensive consultations. Eighty-five percent of the document has been agreed on in advance of the conference, known formally as the International Conference on Population and Development.
Less controversy this time
Most of the objections pertain to language that could be interpreted to permit abortion or modern methods of family planning. Three-quarters of the 200 sentences or phrases that will be debated at the conference were ``bracketed'' by the Vatican and its allies.
The high level of agreement that exists despite the bracketed provisions contrasts sharply with the controversies that marked the first global UN population conference.
At the meeting held in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974, divisions formed over the issue of how to slow population growth. The US and other Western democracies pressed the argument that the only way developing countries could get runaway population growth under control would be to institute family-planning programs. The developing nations responded that little could be done about population until economic and social conditions were improved. The view was encapsulated in the catch phrase ``development is the best contraceptive,'' which became the informal slogan of the conference.
Ten years later, the issue was whether population growth was a problem worth worrying about. By the time delegates gathered in Mexico City in 1984, most developing nations had come around to the view that it was.
But this time it was the US that advanced the contrary view. In Mexico, the Reagan administration reversed the working premise of the previous five US presidential administrations by announcing that population was a ``neutral'' factor in development, helpful or harmful depending on the economic conditions existing in any given country.
``The relationship between population growth and economic development is not a negative one,'' James Buckley, head of the US delegation, told surprised conferees.
But behind the headlines, which focused on the controversies at the two conferences, a consensus was taking shape on four issues that will be central to the deliberations that begin in Cairo Sept. 5:
* Rapid population growth can retard economic development.
* Governments should include strategies to slow population growth in their planning for social and economic development.
* A need exists for international action, including financial assistance, to support such strategies.
* Any solution to the population problem must include measures to expand the rights and roles of women.
In the run-up to Cairo, conference organizers have been cheered by a convergence of factors that augur well for success.
One is the broad measure of agreement that now exists among rich and poor nations, multinational institutions, and population experts that the future will pose far greater challenges if rates of population growth are not slowed further. The point has been underscored by leading scientists, who warn that without global efforts to reduce population growth, science may not be able to redeem the future.
If current population and consumption trends continue, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Academy of London noted in a joint statement in 1992, ``science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.''
Another hopeful development is that barriers to implementing responsible measures to deal with rapid population growth are falling. Phyllis Piotrow, director of the Center for Communication Programs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore, notes there is now no nation (like the US during the 1980s) or group of nations (like the Soviet bloc, which dragged its heels at the Bucharest conference) bent on impeding progress at Cairo.
But the Vatican and various fundamentalist Muslim allies are engaged in spirited opposition that could tie up the conference in debate over the wording of its final recommendations and slow the implementation of family-planning programs in some Roman Catholic countries. The two groups are opposed to the use of modern contraceptives, such as the birth-control pill. But even that will not change the fact that tens of millions of Catholic and Muslim believers around the world have come to different conclusions about the morality of using modern methods of birth control.
Growth rate is declining
Beyond the diminishing obstacles to progress in Cairo are new opportunities for dealing with the population question created by the end of the cold war. Freed from the necessity of concentrating on geostrategic threats posed by Soviet expansionism, policymakers now have an opportunity to turn their attention to the global forces that impinge on the peace and prosperity of nations, including the pressure population growth is placing on economic development, food supplies, and the environment.
The world's population, which now stands at 5.6 billion, could double or more before stabilizing, most demographers agree. Although the rate of population growth has been declining for more than two decades, annual increases in human numbers - now about 95 million - are the highest in human history.
Such increases represent the peak of a trend in global population growth that was triggered mainly by improvements in public health, especially in developing countries. Rates of population growth are high principally because death rates have dropped, not because birth rates have risen.
To stabilize population growth, it will be necessary to balance birth and death rates, a condition that existed throughout human history until the turn of the 17th century. To do that, according to UN estimates, it will be necessary at a minimum to provide universal access to safe, effective, convenient, and noncoercive family-planning services. The annual cost would be about $11 billion by the year 2000, according to the UN - an obligation that would have to be shared by developing nations and donor countries.
The draft Programme of Action awaiting ratification in Cairo emphasizes that family-planning agencies will have to do a much better job of getting men involved in reproductive decisionmaking and in providing broader reproductive health services to women.
Family-planning agencies will also have to do better at reaching out to adolescents: Over a third of adolescent girls worldwide will bear children before reaching the age of 20, according to the UN. But few adolescents have been welcome at family-planning clinics because of religious and cultural opposition to providing contraceptive services to minors.
But focusing on the ``supply side'' approach to lowering population growth - that is, supplying couples with contraceptives and advice on how to use them - may not be sufficient to do the job. That is where the ``demand side'' approach to slowing population growth comes in.
Delegates in Cairo will stress the point that governments will have to do much more to address the factors that determine how many children women actually want, as opposed to how many they need under conditions where children are the only source of status and eventual old-age security.
The two main factors that influence family-size preference are education and economic opportunity. By providing more of both, developing countries will be helping themselves in two ways.
First, they will help unleash the productive potential of women, who can then make a significant contribution to economic development. One recent World Bank study conducted in Kenya indicates that, if given the same resources now available to men, women would produce between 10 and 15 percent more food than men would produce.
Second, they would be helping to lower the high birth rates that often retard economic development by, among other things, impeding savings and investment, hastening the deterioration of infrastructure, and lowering the quality and duration of schooling. As a report issued last week by the UN Population Fund suggests, empowerment of individual women ``may be the key to social development, including the resolution of population problems, in the rest of this century and beyond.''
The draft Programme of Action calls on developing countries to devote 20 percent of their budgets to various social programs to provide universal access to family-planning and reproductive health services, to help reduce infant and child mortality, and to provide universal primary education.