In a media environment filled with startling new developments ranging from the truly bizarre to the truly catastrophic, the fact that population is growing is hardly news. It’s hard to compete for airtime with the arrest of a terrorist wannabe, the release of the new Kindle Fire, or another possible government shutdown.
Nevertheless, population matters, and today we are releasing a report, “From 6 Billion to 7 Billion: How Population Growth is Changing and Challenging our World,” on a subject that—we believe–deserves serious media attention. And the reason is simple: the world is changing in ways that raise serious doubts about our ability to sustain projected population growth while also improving the human condition. The gains that we have made in reducing severe poverty, eliminating hunger, and improving health outcomes in the developing world may not be sustainable, unless more is done to empower women, educate girls, and expand the availability of contraceptives.
Twelve years ago, when world population reached the 6 billion milestone, the human prospect looked immeasurably brighter than it does today. The prices of energy and food were at or near historic lows. As a consequence, hunger and severe poverty were on the run, and many thought that we could virtually eliminate them in twenty or thirty years. The world was already warming, but hopes were high that the nations of the world would soon act to reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions and avert the worst effects of climate change. The global economy was booming, and it appeared that the U.S. and other donor nations would provide the foreign assistance that would be needed to accelerate human and economic development. And, while there was growing concern about humanity’s impact on the global environment, many believed that world population would start to decline by mid-century and that, long before then, advances in the use of renewable energy and green technologies would reduce humanity’s ecological footprint.
But over the past 12 years, the trends have not gone according to script. Over the past decade, food and energy prices have soared to record highs; hunger and severe poverty have made a comeback; the fight against climate change has been nearly abandoned; the global economy has been battered; economic development assistance has fallen short of expectations; water scarcity and resource limitations have become more acute; and the transition to a green economy has not been as swift as many hoped. And, in the meantime, world population keeps on growing with no end in sight.
There always have been compelling reasons for making family planning services and reproductive health services more widely available to women in the developing world. Access to contraceptives lowers maternal and infant mortality. It increases the chances that girls will stay in school longer and that parents will send their children to school. It allows women to enter the workforce, and for families to save and, hopefully, prosper. It improves reproductive health, and lowers the chances that family members will acquire HIV/AIDS. Similarly, there always have been strong reasons for investing more in girls, keeping them in school longer, and delaying age of marriage. Female empowerment and gender equality have been, and remain, moral and social imperatives.
But despite the manifest benefits and the moral imperatives the world has moved too slowly to fulfill the pledges made at the International Conference on Population and Development that was held in Cairo in 1994. And while MDG5(b) sets 2015 as the target year for achieving universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services, that target is far from being met.
The events of the past decade should have lent more urgency to family planning and investment in girls and reproductive health, but so far they have not. It’s our hope that our report and the observance of the 7 billion population mark will help to create that sense of urgency. That’s why we are joining with other organizations in declaring that “It’s time to talk.”
The world largest generation ever of young people is now entering its prime reproductive years. We owe it to them, and their posterity, to provide them with the reproductive health and rights that they desire. But it won’t happen without a greater sense of urgency and commitment from the U.S. and other donor nations.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President