Population Matters

The “Grey Swan”

May 18th, 2011

Ever since Nassim Taleb penned “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” it’s been fashionable to classify various catastrophes as ‘black swans.’ But most of the disasters now befalling the world are somewhere between probable and highly improbable. As some people have termed it, there are lot of “grey swans” out there, unlikely occurrences that are just likely enough that they should be anticipated.

Six months ago, for example, no one would have predicted that the Mississippi River would see record flooding in 2011 or that a tsunami would cause massive destruction in northern Japan, but it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to recognize that severe weather events are on the rise or that a growing number of people are living in disaster-prone areas.

Indeed, a confluence of events — including climate change, population growth, debt loads and the world ‘s rising demand for food, energy and water — are dramatically increasing the overall levels of risk in the world, and as a consequence, there are a lot more disasters just waiting to happen. And some of these ‘grey swans’ could have secondary impacts with severe and wide-ranging consequences.

Chief among these ‘grey swans’ are the kind of record floods occurring this year in Australia and North America and last year in South Asia, or the severe droughts that afflicted Northern Asia last year and which are now plaguing parts of Western Europe and the southern U.S. These disruptive weather events are contributing to a global food crisis that has drawn down stocks of wheat and corn to dangerous levels and boosted world food prices to record levels.

The World Bank and the FAO have been warning for months that the world is just one bad harvest away from a dramatic escalation of food prices, one that could produce massive hardship and civil disorder. The food crisis has already contributed to the political unrest that has swept North Africa and the Middle East.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure up a scenario in which additional flooding or drought somewhere in the world contributes to a significant shortfall in world grain production and another dramatic bump up in food prices. It takes even less imagination to see how politically disruptive that might be.

Egypt, in particular, could face a major challenge. Because Egypt imports nearly half its food, it is extremely vulnerable to rising food prices, and since the food riots that helped to overthrow the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves have declined dramatically. The loss of tourist revenue, combined with a growing loss of faith in Egypt’s economy, is making it harder and harder for Egypt’s government to feed its people.

Just about the time that Egypt is scheduled to hold new elections this fall, Egypt may be running out of the money it needs to import grain. If so, who will feed Egypt’s 80 million people? And where will the grain come from? A further drop in world grain reserves could set off a global scramble for food. If panic sets in, more nations will follow Russia’s lead and impose grain export bans, further shrinking the world’s grain market. China and other food importing nations will try to build up their food reserves to guard against potential shortfalls. In such a food-constrained world, who would feed Egypt or any other poor, food-dependent country?

If we’re lucky, we will muddle through 2011 without any further disruption to world food production. But with the world population expected to grow by another 2.3 billion over the next forty years, and the worst effects of climate change yet to come, the current food crisis could easily become a chronic food crisis, particularly if energy prices remain high, driving up the costs of fertilizer and transporting food.

There’s not much we can do in the short run to blunt rising food prices, but in the longer term there’s much we can do to close the food gap. It wouldn’t cost much to boost the availability of family planning services and information in developing countries, or to invest more in agricultural development and water conservation.

A severe and long lasting food crisis is no longer a remote possibility. A decade ago, when food production was still outpacing population growth, it was a ‘black swan.’ No longer. Today, it’s a ‘grey swan’ and a very big one at that. If we fail to take the steps needed to avoid it, shame on us.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

Reposted from HuffingtonPost.com

Day 17: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 8th, 2011

Day 17 – Thank Your Mom

Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate mothers. This Mother’s Day thank your mom for all that she has done for you and tell us what you are thankful for (via Twitter (#mil4bil), Facebook, blog comments, or YouTube video).

How Do You Plan to Celebrate Mother’s Day?

May 7th, 2011

Every May we set a day aside to celebrate our mothers. Most of us will do something to show them how important our mother is to us, whether it’s sending her flowers, taking her out to brunch, or calling her to say what a difference she’s made in our life.  It is the one day a year devoted to taking time out of our lives to thank our mothers for the role they played in nurturing us.

But this Mother’s Day I will not just celebrate my mother, I will stand up for mothers all around the world.

Giving birth and becoming a mother can bring so much joy into a woman’s life, but it also poses risks. How big of a risk depends on where in the world you live. In the United States a complication related to pregnancy can be treated much easier than in Sierra Leone.  According to the Population Reference Bureau a woman in the United States has 1 in 4,800 chance of dying in childbirth over the course of her life, whereas a woman in Sierra Leone has a 1 in 8 chance.

Around the world this means that every year more than 350,000 women die from pregnancy related causes. That amounts to one woman dying every 90 seconds from complications related to a pregnancy ,with 99% of the victims dying  in the developing world. Most of those women are dying from easily preventable causes. Last year the United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute released a report (http://www.unfpa.org/public/additup) that show by investing in family planning and maternal health care 2/3 of those deaths could be prevented.

So this Mother’s Day, you can honor mothers everywhere by doing two important things.

  • Watch “No Woman, No Cry” by Christy Turlington Burns airing on OWN this Sunday with  your family and friends so that they can learn about maternal health around the world. http://everymothercounts.org/host-watch-party This documentary shares the powerful stories of at-risk pregnant women in four parts of the world, including a remote Maasai tribe in Tanzania, a slum of Bangladesh, a post-abortion care ward in Guatemala, and a prenatal clinic in the United States.
  • Sign the “Million for a Billion” petition, which asks Congress to make sure women everywhere have access to family planning by increasing U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health programs to $1Billion: http://www.millionforabillion.com.

That is why on this Mother’s Day, after I thank my mom for raising me to be the woman I am today, I will remember the women around the world who are no longer around to see this mother’s day. I will remember that we can prevent these deaths, and I will add my voice to those demanding that the U.S. increase its support for family planning and reproductive health services.  If we do that, more mothers will be around next Mother’s Day to celebrate with their children.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Day 15: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 6th, 2011

Day 15 – Watch “Adding it Up”

Providing family planning and maternal health services makes a world of difference.  To women and their families in the developing world it can even be the difference between life and death.  Find out more about the many good things that happen when women and young mothers receive the care they need.  The United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute have produced a compelling and enlightening report on this subject.

Learn why investing in family planning and maternal health is urgent, watch “Adding it Up” http://www.unfpa.org/public/additup

Day 14: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 5th, 2011

Day 14 – Tell Us Why Family Planning is Important to You

Access to contraceptives and reproductive health services produces enormous benefits.  It’s a ‘win-win’ for women, their families, their communities and the world.  There is no shortage of good reasons for supporting family planning. Yesterday’s action was to talk to your friends about why you think it’s so important. Today tell us what you talked about with your friends or tell us why you think family planning is important (via Twitter (#mil4bil), Facebook, blog comments, or YouTube video).

Day 13: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 4th, 2011

Day 13 – Talk to Friends about Million for a Billion

Access to contraceptives and reproductive health services produces enormous benefits.  It’s a ‘win-win’ for women, their families, their communities and the world.  There is no shortage of good reasons for supporting family planning, so take a moment sometime today to have a conversation with your friends about why you think it’s so important.

Day 12: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 3rd, 2011

Day 12 – Thank President Obama and Secretary Clinton

Need some help getting started?  Here are some sample letters you can post:


Dear President Obama:

As Mother’s Day approaches, I want to extend a special thanks to you for the creation of the Global Health Initiative and your strong commitment to family planning and maternal health.  Investing in women and girls may be the single most important thing that we can do to fight poverty, reduce mortality, promote gender equity, and expand opportunity.    On behalf of women and mothers everywhere, please accept our appreciation for all that you have done. Your continued leadership is desperately needed.


Dear Secretary Clinton:

Please accept our profound thanks for everything that you have done on behalf of women and girls around the globe.  Under your inspirational leadership, the U.S. has become, once again, a strong advocate for family planning, reproductive health, and the rights of women.  As you so eloquently put it, “Investing in the health of women and girls is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”  When women receive access to the care and services they need, they flourish and the world flourishes with them.   Now more than ever, we need your continued leadership.

Day 11: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 2nd, 2011

Day 11 – Get to Know Who Supports Million for a Billion

The “Million for a Billion” campaign is a group effort.  Nearly two dozen organizations supporting family planning and reproductive health have joined together in endorsing the petition.  Many of these organizations are doing important work or offer valuable information.  Take a moment today to check out the endorsers of this campaign by going to our endorsers’ page and clicking on an organization that interests you.

Endorsing Organizations: http://www.millionforabillion.us/endorsers/

Day 10: From Mother Earth to Mothers 17 Days of Action

May 1st, 2011

Day 10 – Learn About Family Planning in South Africa

The United Nations has set 2015 target year for achieving universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. Thanks to the support of governments around the world, we have made notable gains toward making that target a reality, but in many nations today women and young people still lack access to the counseling and contraceptives they need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

See what’s happening in South Africa: http://vimeo.com/19519993