After Cairo

THE United Nations conference on population and development, which ended this week, has given the world a 113-page action plan. Yet the meeting will have little to show for itself besides another tome occupying shelf space unless individual nations - particularly in the developing world - put the plan into action.

In one sense, the conference did the expected; with a few glaring exceptions, it was nine days of preaching to the largely converted. It adopted a nonbinding document that enjoyed a large degree of consensus prior to the meeting. Many government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had a voice in shaping the document. The document will be put to a vote in the UN General Assembly, which gives it the nonbinding UN stamp of approval.

And after that?

One barometer of the conference's real impact will be the extent to which countries back documents and speeches with firm policies and money. Over the next 20 years, the plan calls for an investment of $17 billion a year by the year 2000 and $21.5 billion a year by 2015. Developing countries are to put up two-thirds of the money. It is not clear that the governments of many developing countries have the budget or desire to reorient priorities to meet these goals. And in Western countries, the level of funding could change with changes of administration - as happened in the United States between the 1984 conference and this year's meeting.

Nor is money alone an answer, as the document recognizes. It calls for improving educational and economic opportunities for women, which - aside from serving the larger value of developing the worth of every individual - has a marked effect on efforts to reduce fertility rates. Yet in many developing countries, this requires deep changes in social attitudes that can't be accelerated by more cash for condoms.

The Cairo meeting has helped focus attention on the need to move the global population issue beyond discussions of birth control. But focus can blur.

Follow-up and mechanisms for holding governments accountable are needed to ensure that the document doesn't become another academic conversation piece.

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