Economic Inequality, Not Overpopulation, Is the Key Issue

The United Nations World Population day - July 11 - was a time to focus attention on the urgency for global population stabilization.

Since the Industrial Revolution, policymakers have identified rapid population growth as a major cause of natural resource depletion, poverty, and social turmoil. Since World War II, a vast international network of financial and technical support has been set in place by the rich countries of the North for population control in the poor countries of the South.

Fertility and population growth rates are declining rapidly. According to revised UN estimates, the world will have half a billion fewer people by 2050 than earlier predicted. It is time, then, to reevaluate our thinking about population and population-control strategies.

Birth control and choice in reproduction are fundamental to women's autonomy and freedom. Despite recent attention to "women's issues," family-planning programs continue to move in authoritarian and coercive directions.

In many countries in the South, especially in Asia, economic incentives are used to encourage poor people to accept sterilization and contraception. Experimental contraceptives such as Norplant, "vaccines," and the nonsurgical sterilization method, Quinacrine, are given to women without proper, informed consent procedures and quality health care.

In their urgency to bring down population growth, international population-control agencies like the World Bank have emphasized population stabilization over poverty alleviation. In countries such as Bangladesh, fertility and population growth rates have come down without substantial improvements in the standards of living and the social and economic position of women.

Widening economic inequality (across social classes, sexes, regions), not overpopulation, is the main issue of our time. Between 1960 and '91, the income share of the richest 20 percent of the global population increased from 70.2 percent to 85 percent, while the share of the poorest 20 percent declined from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent. Seventy percent of the world's absolutely poor are now women.

The North, with a little more than 20 percent of the global population, accounts for about 75 percent of the world's energy use, emission of two-thirds of greenhouse gases, and 90 percent of CFCs, which damage the earth's ozone layer. The US, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are responsible for 85 percent of the global arms trade. The greater threat to environmental sustainability and security, then, comes from the North, which has declining population growth rates, rather than from the poor South, where fertility and population growth rates are higher.

Global poverty, environmental destruction, and political conflicts will deepen without a more equitable redistribution of resources. In some countries beset by AIDS and war, population implosions could be the long-term result.

It's time to move beyond the quantitative focus on population to a qualitative focus honoring the essential equality of all people and the right of all to food, shelter, health care, education, and decent livelihoods. International policymakers need to focus attention on the urgency for informed consent and quality health care in family-planning programs - and the economic empowerment of women. These call for debt alleviation of poor countries, curbs on the global arms trade, and environmental regulation of transnational corporations. The substitution of a World Social Justice Day for the World Population Day would mark a step in the right direction.

* Asoka Bandarage is associate professor of women's studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and the author of "Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis" (Zed Books).

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