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World: Report Forecasts Bleak Future For Fast Growing Population

The United Nations Population Fund has released a report that says the world's population will reach 6 billion this year. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos talks to experts about the implications of the rapidly growing population.

Prague, 22 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On or around October 12, a very important baby will be born somewhere in the world. According to a report released today by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), that new life will take the global population to 6 billion people.

Carol Bellamy, the executive director of the United Nation Children's Fund (UNICEF), says the odds for the future of this child -- growing up in a world of depleting resources and continuing poverty -- are not good:

"That child has a three in ten chance of being born into abject poverty and only a one in ten chance of being born into relatively decent conditions. If the child is a girl, she is even more likely to suffer from malnutrition and abuse and violence. So, at the end of the century, the picture -- in terms of the amount of poverty and its effects on children -- is not great."

Experts at the UNFPA say population growth is set to continue. The world's population has doubled since 1960 and that figure is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. That means the world is gaining some 78 million people annually, roughly the equivalent of adding a new France, Greece, and Sweden each year.

The UNFPA says growth is happening in places that can't afford it. By 2050, the UN says the industrialized world will have a smaller population than it has today, while poorer parts of the globe will have doubled their populations. In the developing world -- mainly sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America -- the addition of several billion more people could increase poverty, squander environmental resources, and hamper efforts toward sustainable development.

The main reason for the burgeoning population is that half the world now is under 25 years of age. Experts say that most of this generation is destined to become parents. Critics of the report have said its authors are alarmist and that global resources can easily accommodate the growing population.

Frank Furedi writes in today's Wall Street Journal Europe that "not only have food supplies kept pace with the population growth, but we now have the means to feed far greater numbers of people than we did 100 or 200 years ago." Furedi, a population expert, is the author of "Population and Development: A Critical Introduction."

But feeding a rapidly growing planet is only part of the problem.

The UN says the real key to better living standards involves improving access to education and promoting what the UN report calls "gender equality," or ensuring that both men and women have equal access to education, opportunity and health resources.

Placing an emphasis on gender equality has been a hallmark of UN population policy since a groundbreaking population conference in Cairo in 1994. That conference concluded that women would voluntarily choose to have fewer children if they were better educated and had better access to reproductive health care.

Bellamy says the disparity in how males and females are treated can be seen most clearly in the classroom. UNICEF estimates that two thirds of the more than 130 million school-age children not now in schools are girls. "A girl who receives a minimum of primary education is more likely to grow and take care of herself from a health perspective. She is more likely to be economically secure. She is more likely to make choices about her future, and therefore choices on when to have children, therefore children tend to be spaced more appropriately. Therefore the children tend to be healthy. So there are many factors that education plays."

Funding remains the biggest obstacle to improving access to education. At present, 80 percent of the current funding comes from just five countries: China, India, Mexico, Indonesia, and Iran.

Patricia Sears of the Center for Development and Population Activities says donor countries, particularly the United States, have not lived up to their aid commitments. She says the problem has to do with a more conservative approach to foreign aid and the fact that population aid has gotten tied up with the controversial issue of abortion.

"The U.S. has been prohibited since 1973 from funding any abortion policies or programs. So that is a non-issue. However, they [U.S. policymakers] are still trying to link [population funding] to some kind of abortion language. And, right now, they're trying to tie it up in a gag rule so that if individual non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries use their own money to do any kind of abortion advocacy, they will lose their U.S. funding."

Sears says it's in the interest of prosperous donor countries to support gender equality and family planning. Not only would improved education lead to less strain on resources, she says, it would also help in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Approximately one-third of Africans have been infected with AIDS or the HIV virus which causes it. As she says disease knows no boundaries.