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The Planet

Cairo Delivers, But Will World Keep Its Promise?

The International Conference on Population and Development at times seemed overwhelmed by the kind of disagreement and squabbling that plagued its predecessors. But delegates pushed on and, in the end, adopted a plan of action that, if carried out, would fulfill many of the goals the Sierra Club and other groups had for the conference.

Despite the distraction of debates over abortion and immigration, September's Cairo conference produced widespread agreement on the tools needed to tackle population growth -- and a hefty boost in funding to pay for them. Unlike previous U.N. population summits in Budapest in 1974 and Mexico City in 1984, Cairo had both developing nations and so-called donor nations marching in step on the population issue.

"This conference elicited near-consensus from 180 countries and hundreds of non-governmental organizations on what is to be done. That's extraordinary," said Tanya Henrich, a Sierra Club activist who attended the Cairo conference

Conference delegates came to the conference imbued with a sense of urgency. Population policy has traditionally seesawed between providing family planning and encouraging economic development -- but neither of these by itself has been enough.

Recent thinking views population growth as a phenomenon whose complexity demands that planners abandon the simplistic one-solution approach and begin adopting a wide range of strategies. Faced with a rapidly growing world population currently estimated at 6 billion -- and predictions of a doubling within several decades -- governments are eager to latch onto new solutions that collectively might slow growth.

At Cairo, delegates spoke of the need to expand health and family-planning services to women worldwide. Four factors -- empowerment of women and gender equity, child survival, education and alleviation of poverty -- were identified as areas that could help improve the quality of life as well as reducing birth rates worldwide.

The Sierra Club and other non-governmental organizations also urged conference delegates to devote more funding to what they called the "unmet need" -- the hundreds of millions of couples worldwide who want family planning services but have no access to them.

With such an ambitious agenda, the biggest unanswered question going into the Cairo conference centered around who would foot the bill. Led by a U.S. delegation that included Vice President Al Gore and Tim Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs, participants responded by agreeing to boost spending for family planning and reproductive health services to about $17 billion by the year 2000 -- more than triple current spending. Developing nations would bear about 67 percent of the cost, down from the current 75 percent.

The conference's final plan of action provided no direction, however, for determining each country's share of the total. When added to the fact that such international agreements are nonbinding and have a history of being underfunded, the lack of concrete commitments alarmed population activists to the possibility that Cairo's bold vision might go unrealized.

"Donor nations will need to redouble their efforts to meet the funding goals," said Ray Pingle, a member of the Club's Population Committee who also attended Cairo. The Sierra Club has calculated that donor nations must contribute an amount equal to less than three-tenths of 1 percent of their gross national product in order to meet the total commitment of $5.7 billion annually. The U.S. share, for example, would be about $1.75 billion by the year 2000.

Details of how money will be spent are scheduled to be taken up at the U.N. Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in March 1995. Sierra Club leaders say it is critical that the upcoming summit address the social underpinnings of population growth and set concrete goals for the elimination of widespread poverty.

To take action:

Write President Clinton at the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20500, or call (202) 456-1414.

Tell Clinton to adopt the funding formula outlined above -- .028 percent of GNP -- in order to meet U.S. commitments under the Cairo agreement.

For more information:

Contact Karen Kalla, director of the Sierra Club's Population Program, at (202) 547-1141.

SOURCE: Neil Hamilton, published in The Planet, November 1994
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