AS lawmakers sharpen their knives to cut population programs abroad they should bear this in mind: that since the mid-1960s US money and cheerleading on behalf of family planning have led to one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century.
If that claim sounds extravagant, consider that in a mere three decades - virtually overnight, as social change is measured - contraceptive use has quintupled worldwide, while average family size has been nearly halved. Consider also that, if the family planning revolution is sustained, the world could end up with 5 billion fewer people by the end of the 21st century than it would have had otherwise, according to the Population Council.
The profound significance of the family planning revolution is that those 5 billion people could be the difference between the world staying within critical environmental thresholds or crossing them through overuse of the precious water, soil, and forest resources that sustain life on earth.
But an amendment to the 1996 US foreign aid authorization bill pending in Congress would cut funding to the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which support or administer population programs in most developing nations. Appropriations for bilateral population assistance could end up being cut by as much as one-half.
There are other reasons why the $500 million the United States currently provides to slow the world's population growth should be preserved, even in an era of budget stringency. Ninety-five percent of all population growth takes place in developing countries, which have some decidedly uncheerful things in common. Together, they have only 15 percent of the world's gross product, a fraction of its scientists, and virtually all its abject poor.
By the middle of the next century, between 5 billion and 7 billion more people are likely to be added to this realm of deprivation. In theory, developing countries could accommodate such growth by adopting sound economic policies, eradicating political corruption, reforming land-holding patterns, and streamlining government bureaucracies.
The blunt reality is that most of them probably won't, at least not fast enough to keep up with population-doubling times that are as low as 20 years in some poor nations. And if they don't, the consequences are likely to be political instability, environmental degradation, and large refugee flows. All of which could adversely affect the stability of the international system, impinge on America's own interests, and summon wealthy nations to invest huge sums to pay for humanitarian aid.
The worst of possible futures can be glimpsed in the vacant stares of the joyless, jobless men who while away long hours on street corners and in coffee houses in cities like Algiers because they have nothing else to do. They are part of an army of unemployed men and women that includes three-quarters of all Algerians between the ages of 16 and 30 who, in turn, are part of the largest body of global unemployed in human history. They live in the world's most dangerous gulf - between the line on graphs economists draw to plot economic growth and the higher line that measures population growth. The world in between is a breeding ground of political extremism and religious fundamentalism.
Rapid population growth is not the only factor that holds developing nations like Algeria in the grip of poverty. But in nearly all nations it is a factor that magnifies the negative effects of inappropriate political and economic policies.
If the US is to help prevent such bleak futures it ought to sustain its modest efforts to relieve the pressure caused by rapid population growth, even as it does everything possible to prod developing nations toward free-market reforms and technological innovations.
One salient fact about the population problem is that it worsens with startling speed. The human family grows by 1 million every 96 hours. But there is another salient fact about this problem: It is eminently solvable. As the nations of the world acknowledged at last September's United Nations population conference in Cairo, combining fully voluntary family planning programs with measures to improve the status and health of women can lead to rapid drops in fertility.
As one respected demographer has noted, population is not a problem looking for a solution but a solution looking for resources. The resources needed to implement the Cairo agenda and to stabilize global population growth will have to come primarily from developing nations themselves. But the US and other industrialized nations will have to help.
If the goal of the 104th Congress is to save money, then sustaining US funding for population programs is the way to do it. Such an investment would be the consummate act of enlightened self-interest on the part of the US.