Population Matters

Child Marriage in Yemen

March 25th, 2010

This week hundreds of women in Yemen protested in support of a bill that would ban child marriage.  According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, the government has enough votes for the bill to pass, however President Ali Abdullah Seleh’s ruling party is reluctant due to religious opposition from the conservative Islah party, which holds a lot of power in the rural areas.  The proposed bill would subject parents to a fine or a possible one year jail sentence for marrying their daughters before the age of 17.  With almost half of Yemeni girls married before the age of 18, and girls often married at age eight in rural areas, the passage of this bill is desperately needed.

On March 8, I wrote a blog entry referencing a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times about Nujood, a 10-year old girl from Yemen who created controversy when she asked for a divorce from her 30-year old husband.  Nujood’s story has increased international pressure on the Yemeni government, but passage of the child marriage ban is still far from certain.

This is more than a human rights issue.  Child marriage prevents girls from receiving the education they deserve, as they are often pulled from school to live with their new husbands.  It has important health implications; child brides are far more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth.  Young brides are also less likely to know about STDs like HIV/AIDS, and are more likely to suffer domestic violence and abuse.

A decision on this bill is expected next month.  Yemeni women have taken to the streets in support of the proposed law, but women everywhere need to speak up.

Posted by Emily Pontarelli, Program Associate

Death Row Reprieve for Porbeagle Shark

March 24th, 2010

Juliet Eilpern, a reporter for the Washington Post, has been in Doha, Qatar, for the past several days reporting on the latest deliberations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  She reports that “ocean advocates are becoming so disillusioned with the Doha conservation conference they’ve started calling it “No-ha.” While the porbeagle shark got a potential reprieve from death row, seven other shark species, including three varieties of hammerhead sharks, failed to get the two-thirds majority required for protective status. Earlier, the conferees rejected any trade protections for red and pink coral, polar bears, and bluefin tuna.

CITES is attacked by environmental groups as being unduly dominated by the narrow commercial interests of the nations represented at the conference. That’s certainly a fair criticism.  In much of East Asia today, shark fin has become both a delicacy and a highly profitable industry. As a result, Japan and other nations fight efforts to trim the trade in sharks.  On the other hand, the Kaiser’s spotted newt, an Iranian salamander, gets a reprieve.  Its numbers are so low–below a thousand–that it has lost its large scale commercial value.  Before the porbeagle shark got its protected status this week, its numbers had to decline by more than 80 percent.

Lost in all the debate over the endangered species is the recognition that growing human numbers, more than our dietary preferences, are the real culprit.  Last year, when I visited the Seattle Aquarium I was handed a card that provided a long list of fish that were “okay” to eat, “not okay” to eat, or somewhere in between.  In reviewing the list, I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take, particularly if everyone followed the recommendations, for some of the “okay’ fish to join the “not okay” list.  As long as people demand fish and we keep adding another billion people to the planet every 11 or 12 years, it’s only a matter of time before all of the “okay” fish join the list of extinct and endangered species.

In response to the Population Institute’s call for a Global Population Speak Out in February of this year, the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona began distributing 100,000 free condoms packaged with artistic portrayals of six animals – the polar bear, jaguar, American burying beetle, snail darter, coquí guajón rock frog and spotted owl.  The point behind the campaign is an important one.  As CBD’s Randy Serraglio explained it, “Most biologists agree that we have begun the sixth mass extinction event in the Earth’s history. What separates this one from earlier events is that it is being driven by a single species – humans. All the direct threats to the earth’s biodiversity – land-use changes due to urban sprawl and commercial development, environmental contamination, competition for water and other resources, climate change, and so on – are driven by human overpopulation.”

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

World Water Day

March 22nd, 2010

When you look at Earth from space one of the most striking features is how much water there is, 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. Unfortunately 97% of that water is salt water in the world’s oceans and seas. The remaining 3% of the water is fresh water, but 75% of that is locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers, leaving only a quarter of the Earth’s fresh water available for use. Much of the life on the planet is dependent on fresh water including 6.8 billion humans, but with continued population growth and shrinking water supplies, a crisis could be looming.

According to an International Water Management Institute report, Comprehensive Assessments of Water Management in Agriculture, more than 1.2 billion people or about one-fifth of the world’s population currently live in areas with water scarcity, meaning they do not have enough water to meet everyone’s daily needs. This is a figure that will almost certainly rise as the world’s population grows, more underground aquifers are depleted, and climate change intensifies both drought and flooding.

Today on World Water Day we have an opportunity to reflect on the amount of water available for use, its quality, and the life it supports. For this year’s World Water Day, the U.N. chose the theme of  “Clean Water for a Healthy World” to emphasize “that both the quality and quantity of water resources are at risk.”

One of the biggest threats to water quality is that millions of tons of inadequately treated sewage, agricultural waste, and industrial waste are dumped into rivers and lakes every day.  This trend will only be exacerbated if the world’s population grows and sanitation systems fail to keep up.  Water contamination is already a severe problem in developing countries, where 80% of the sewage gets dumped directly into bodies of water.  The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that 2.5 billion people live without improved sanitation.

The U.N. also reports that water pollution is responsible for more deaths than all forms of violence, including war. Every year, 1.5 million children die because of unsafe water. Nearly 1 in 5 child deaths are due to diarrhea, making it the second leading cause of child mortality (WHO). It is unacceptable that a child dies every 15 seconds (UNICEF and WHO) because of unsafe water, but with population growing rapidly in some of the world’s least developed countries, the problem could get much worse without a major investment in sanitation infrastructure.

While population growth poses many challenges, water scarcity is one of the greatest. On this World Water Day let’s remember that water is essential to all life on this planet and without clean water a healthy future is in doubt.


Full Earth NASA

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Another Loose Cannon

March 18th, 2010

Two years ago, Canada’s Foreign Minister, Maxime Bernier, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had left secret government documents at the home of his ex-girlfriend, who was publicly criticized for her alleged ties with gangsters.  Long before he resigned from Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet, Bernier had become a political liability to Canada’s Conservative government.  To put it gently, he was often described as “gaffe-prone.”

Well, it looks as if Harper has another “loose cannon” at the head of the Canadian Foreign Ministry, and this time his name is Lawrence Cannon.  And while he isn’t being charged with leaving secret government documents in the wrong place, he could be charged with taking leave of his senses.

Jodi Jacobson, the editor-in-chief of RH RealityCheck, pretty well summed it up yesterday in her blog:

In an act that appears to reflect a global epidemic of political absurdity, aversion to evidence, and “un-reality” show searches for “common ground” efforts that do not address the core problems we face, the Canadian government has decided to exclude support for contraceptive programs, supplies, and information from its initiative to save the lives and improve the health of mothers in poor countries.

There’s only one small problem: You can’t “save the lives and improve the health of mothers” without family planning.

Not surprising, perhaps, this is not Cannon’s first misfire.  Cannon, who earlier this year drew praise when he said that Canada was going to make improving maternal health a primary objective of its foreign aid program, subsequently drew fire when he announced that he was temporarily suspending any increased aid to Africa pending an interagency review of earlier aid programs.  Africa, of course, has an extraordinarily high rate of maternal death.  As critics quickly noted, it’s hard to make progress on maternal health if you are suspending any new aid to Africa.

Cannon also drew multi-partisan fire earlier this month when he appointed Gerard Latulippe as president of the non-partisan Rights and Democracy organization, which is taxpayer funded.  Critics from several parties charged that Latulippe’s appointment amounted to “political interference.”

But putting Cannon aside for the moment, his latest “misfire” on family planning points to a much larger problem. Too many policymakers, not just Cannon, are quick to overlook the many benefits that flow from family planning and reproductive health services. Last year, the United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute published a report, titled “Adding it Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health.”  As that study fully documents, family planning and reproductive health services are cost-effective and desperately needed:

In the developing world, deaths and poor health among women and newborns have remained too high for too long, despite decades of international agreements declaring the need for urgent action to improve wellbeing among these groups. More effective action is needed now, especially given the strong evidence of the benefits of investing in the health of women and their newborns: fewer unintended pregnancies; fewer maternal and newborn deaths; healthier mothers and children; greater family savings and productivity; and better prospects for educating children, strengthening economies and reducing the pressure on natural resources in developing countries.

It’s too bad that Lawrence Cannon didn’t get the memo.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Kotkin’s Population Equation

March 16th, 2010

Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in Orange, CA and the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank, has authored a new book, entitled, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, published in February 2010 by Penguin Press.  I haven’t read the book yet, but I have read an article [“What America will look like in 2050”] that he wrote for AOL on the same subject.  Like his book, it extols the virtues of population growth.  He falsely equates a “population boom” with an “economic boom.”   Here’s the response that I just sent to AOL:

Joel Kotkin’s “What America will look like in 2050” is a remarkably myopic look at America’s future.   Adding another 100 million people to the U.S. population will not, as he suggests, put America “on a growth track far faster than most other major nations in the world.”  Nor will it, as he proposes, bring forth a “host” of economic and social benefits.  Rather, such growth will pose a host of challenges that, if not met, could endanger our quality of life and the planet at large.

Kotkin might be right to suggest that population growth will help to boost America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but GDP is a seriously flawed measure of prosperity and wellbeing.  When we deplete scare resources like oil, natural gas, rare earth metals, forests, and topsoil, GDP and incomes may be temporarily boosted, but the country is not richer in any real sense.  Similarly, when we have to build more roads, schools and infrastructure simply to accommodate more people, GDP increases, but it doesn’t necessarily improve standards of living.

Even if GDP itself was an accurate measure of economic wellbeing, what we ought to be concerned with is not GDP, but per capita GDP.  If America’s population grows ten percent and its GDP grows 10%, the average American is not any richer or poorer.  If American population grows 10% and its GDP increases only 5%, Americans are actually worse off, not better.  And that’s what would happen if we don’t produce the jobs that a hundred million more people will demand by midcentury.

It’s true that aging industrial societies, like the U.S., face economic challenges as the ratio of workers to retirees increases, but adding more people and dependents (i.e. children) is not a recipe for prosperity.  If the costs of an aging society are to be borne, and they must be, the proper solution is more savings and investment, not more population. If the U.S. needs more consumers to maintain employment, there are plenty of “new consumers” in China, India, and other rapidly developing nations to employ workers in the U.S. and elsewhere.  In the long run, increased productivity, not procreation, will determine whether America and other countries prosper.  Population growth is not an easy economic cure; it’s not even a cure.

Kotkin’s population prescription also conveniently ignores what increased population will do to increase America’s already oversized ecological footprint.  While the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, we consumer about 20-25% of the world’s resources and, historically, the U.S. has accounted for a similar percentage of the world’s carbon emissions.  Simply put, on a per capita basis we consumer more, waste more, and pollute more than almost any other country.  Adding another 100 million Americans by midcentury will make the challenge of radically reducing America’s carbon and greenhouse gas emissions a whole lot harder. It will also serve to make us even more dependent on foreign oil than we are today.  And it will also speed the despoilation of the planet, as we import more resources and product to build more homes, schools and cars to accommodate still more people living the American lifestyle.

Joel Kotkin is to be congratulated for taking time to look into America’s future, but his vision is myopic.  He needs new glasses.  A visionary he is not.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Goldstone’s Population Bomb

March 10th, 2010

Jack A. Goldstone’s article in Foreign Affairs (“The New Population Bomb” January/February 2010) is generating a lot of discussion.  Goldstone offers some sobering insights on how rapid population growth and urbanization in the least developed countries could be economically impoverishing and politically destabilizing, but his suggestion that expanded population growth in rich developed countries is the antidote is simply wrong. The world economy, does not, as Goldstone argues, need “new consumers and new households.”  Simply put, adding more high-consuming people to a world that is increasingly constrained by shortages of food, water, energy and scarce resources will only contribute to greater global destabilization.  Higher and higher prices for commodities like grain, oil and scarce minerals will only exacerbate the divide between rich developed nations and the world’s resource poor countries.

There is no ‘baby gap’ that needs to be closed. It’s true that aging industrial societies face economic challenges as the ratio of workers to retirees increases, but adding more dependents (i.e. children) is not a recipe for prosperity.  If the costs of an aging society are to be borne, and they must be, the proper solution is more savings, not more babies. If the advanced developed nations need more consumers to maintain employment, there are plenty of “new consumers” in China and other rapidly developing nations to employ workers in the U.S. and elsewhere.  In the long run, increased productivity, not procreation, will determine whether America and other countries prosper.

If Goldstone is right in arguing that rapid population growth and urbanization in poor developing countries will jeopardize their food security, result in high unemployment, and create political instability, then we should boost support for international family planning assistance, so that women in developing countries can prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies.  Boosting birth rates in industrialized nations will make matters worse, not better.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

International Women’s Day 2010

March 8th, 2010

Every year International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8, and today marks the 99th observance, but Nicholas Kristof wrote a column last week in the New York Times that reminds me how far we still have to go.  He wrote about a 10-year old girl from Yemen named Nujood, who asked for a divorce from her 30-year old husband, a controversial decision in a “society where it’s the men who give the orders, and the women who follow them.” Her inspiring story, which was published in a book entitled I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, encouraged other young girls to do the same and speak out against child marriage.  But Nujood’s story is also a reminder that, despite the progress that has been made since the first International Women’s Day, women around the world continue to struggle against oppression.

The first International Women’s Day was launched in 1911, and was proposed by a woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) so that women all over the world could push for their demands.  The first International Women’s Day was very successful, with over one million men and women attending rallies campaigning to end discrimination and to give women the right to work, vote, and be elected to public office.

In 1975, IWD was given official recognition by the United Nations and is considered a national holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

There are many different themes depending on the country or group, the United Nations theme for 2010 is: Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all.  As part of this year’s observance, the UN is presently hosting a conference on the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.  You can read more about this in our last blog entry, “Beijing +15 Moving Beyond Rhetoric.”

Please share your International Women’s Day stories with us.  Tell us what are you doing to help women around the world.

Posted by Emily Pontarelli, Program Associate

Beijing +15 Moving Beyond Rhetoric

March 4th, 2010

This week and next the United Nations is holding a fifteen year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It is an opportunity to look at what has been accomplished since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and what still needs to be done in achieving gender equality and realizing women’s rights.

The Platform for Action that came out of Beijing reinforced the importance of women’s rights and empowerment that were established a year earlier at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The Platform for Action called the international community to action in 12 key areas: poverty, education and training, health, violence against women, armed conflict, economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment and girls.

One of the highlights from the Beijing Conference was the rousing speech given by then First Lady Hillary Clinton. In her 1994 speech Clinton stressed that, “if there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

She concluded saying that:

“As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes – the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.

Let this conference be our – and the world’s – call to action. Let us heed that call so we can create a world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity, every boy and girl is loved and cared for equally, and every family has the hope of a strong and stable future. That is the work before you. That is the work before all of us who have a vision of the world we want to see for our children and grandchildren.”

Secretary Clinton, over the years, has made it clear that women’s empowerment is a goal near and dear to her heart, and next Friday when she delivers her remarks at the United Nations she will have an opportunity to reaffirm that commitment.  But the realization of gender equality and women’s rights will require that the U.S. increase its spending on maternal health in general, and family planning and reproductive health in particular.  In the current budget climate, will the administration be able to deliver on its commitments, or will those commitments fall victim  to budget cuts?

Let’s hope that the Administration’s political will is translated into real dollars and real programs, so that the goals set forth in Beijing 15 years ago are, at last, fully realized.

Afghanistan: Girl's Classroom Scene

Alejandro Chicheri, WFP

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager