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World: UN Population Fund Notes Progress, Problems

  • Petra Mayer

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Participants at a United Nations forum on population and development this week in The Hague are finding that great strides have been made toward limiting population growth, but that there's a long way to go.

Delegates to the forum of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) are assessing progress made since an international conference on population and development was held in Cairo five years ago.

The Cairo conference marked a turning point in the U.N.'s efforts to limit population growth. The conference's 20-year action program focused on improving lives of individuals instead of setting broad demographic goals. The theory was that the best way to lower birth rates was to educate women and allow them to make informed choices about how many children to have.

The new policies included literacy programs for women and children, sports programs for girls, and efforts to combat domestic violence. UNFPA official William Ryan told RFE/RL, however, that there's a difference between announcing new programs and actually making them work.

"A lot of countries have introduced policies that reflect the new approach, so we're looking at how we can take this process and move it forward to even more countries, and to go from introducing new policies to actually making a substantial difference in the lives of people."

Participants at the Hague Forum say a lack of funds is the biggest problem facing population workers trying to translate the new policy goals into real improvements. Speakers at the forum appealed for more money to train health workers and to provide reproductive health services to teenagers. They said that even where workers have overcome traditional cultural and political obstacles, they often don't have enough money to make a difference.

Sally Ethelston works with the Washington-based organization Population Action International. She told RFE/RL that the holistic approach promoted by the Cairo conference may not be feasible without more funding.

"The [Cairo] program of action had said that spending needed to reach a level of about $17 billion in the year 2000, and the most recent figures show that we're really only about slightly more than half way to that goal, and there are shortfalls across the world, if you will, in that a lot of donor nations have not really lived up to the commitments that were made at Cairo in terms of donor responsibility, providing resources."

The United States, in particular, has failed to meet its commitments after Congress last year cut a $20 million grant to the UNFPA. U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton has since proposed reinstating the fund. She told the forum this week that the U.S. budget for 2000 foresees a $25 million grant to the UNFPA.

Critics of the policy approach say that even with proper funding, it's too expensive and time-consuming to focus on individual women. But Ethelston said there's no quick solution to the problem of population growth and that some of the new policies are working.

"Rather than the world's population reaching 9.4 billion in the year 2050, it is now projected [by the UN] that the population will only reach 8.9 billion. Most of that decrease, or at least a significant part of that lowering of the projection, is because of family planning programs and making it possible for women to make choices about the number of children they have.

Ethelston says despite improved population growth figures, not much progress has been made in reducing maternal mortality and combating HIV/AIDS. She says that while there has been some political opposition to such programs, the main problem again is lack of funds.

She said that sub-Saharan Africa, an area with about 650 million people, has only about $200 million to spend on maternal and child health. UN figures show that Africa has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with as many as one out of every 16 women dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.

UNFPA's Ryan says another challenge for the planet, which now has around 6,000 million people, is making sure teenagers have access to reproductive-health services and that those services be combined with employment and educational opportunities.

"There are now one billion people between the ages of 15 and 24, young people who are starting their childbearing years. If services and information can be made available to enable young people to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and if this can be combined with adequate education and job opportunities, the future is much brighter than if we don't do those things."

The Hague forum is part of a number of events to assess progress since the Cairo population conference. The reviews will culminate in a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in June.