AUG 31, 2004
Population control or reproductive health? It's all a scam

By Pranay Gupte

NEW DELHI - Remember those warnings about how unbridled population growth was a bomb ticking away?

Well, the dire scenario did not materialise. The current world population of 6.4 billion scarcely burdens the earth's carrying capacity; technological advances ensure that even with the world adding 100 million people each year, 'overpopulation' isn't going to result in Malthusian famines and related catastrophes.

But try telling this to the United Nations and its clueless financial supporters in the Nordic countries - and elsewhere in Europe - who continue hammering on the theme. The UN and the Nordics, however unintentionally, have assisted in generating one of the biggest scams to hit the international community, one that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars to sustain bureaucracies and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) supposedly dedicated to population control and reproductive health.

Between UN expenditures and those of individual governments and NGOs, some US$11 billion (S$19 billion) is spent each year on population-related matters. That is more than a fourth of what all 135 countries of the Third World receive annually in foreign aid, and almost a tenth of what they get each year in foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign institutional investment (FII) in their equity markets. And the great population scam is all set to enter a new stage.

Starting today, thousands of politicians, diplomats and academicians will gather in London's Queen Elizabeth II Convention Hall for a three-day conference to lament the world's allegedly rapid population growth. They are flying first class or business class, they are being put up in luxurious lodgings, they are being feted at tony restaurants - and international taxpayers are footing the bill.

Without doubt, the participants will authorise the creation of yet another mechanism for lucrative jobs for favoured Third Worlders to attend to the twin 'problems' of population and development.

The en vogue nomenclature is no longer 'population control'; many African and Asian countries objected to the phrase on the grounds that it suggested neo-colonialism.

Today's favoured phrase is 'reproductive health'. It was popularised at the UN's population conference in Cairo in 1994; the London meeting marks the 10th anniversary of the Cairo talk fest.

And what does 'reproductive health' mean? Anything you wish. Women's sexual system; cures for male impotency; the Aids crisis; sex education for teenagers; the global mantra of 'safe sex'.

The UN and its NGO allies - such as the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Washington-based Population Action International (PAI) - have now cleverly linked the question of reproductive health to that of sustainable economic development.

The argument, stripped to its bare essentials, is: A poor nation cannot progress unless its population size is commensurate with the country's ability to provide adequate education, employment and municipal services.

The solution? Distribution of more condoms and the pill; sex education at schools; better public awareness of infectious sexual malignancies.

The new nomenclature is 'social development', which incorporates both reproductive health and sustainable economic growth.

And who should be entrusted with this weighty task? Agencies such as the UN Fund for Population (UNFPA); the IPPF; the PAI; and, of course, bilateral agencies in the Nordic countries.

For them all, the central villain du jour is the Bush administration, which has withheld financial support to the UNFPA and the IPPF on the grounds that they, tacitly at least, condone abortion in poor countries - however vigorously these organisations deny the charge.

At the London conference, there will be calls to create an international super-agency to coordinate global efforts concerning social development. There's plenty of money available for this new bureaucracy; the Nordics, the Dutch and the Japanese have informally pledged millions of dollars.

Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines may chip in. Even conservative Saudi Arabia - whose citizen, Mrs Thoraya Obaid, heads the UNFPA - is likely to cough up cash.

Is it really necessary to create yet another bureaucracy? My own experience of more than three decades in covering population and development issues suggests that Third World countries don't need the altruism of foreign bodies and their highly compensated consultants.

It's culturally insulting - and historically erroneous - to say that poor people everywhere will keep producing children because of unrestrained libidos.

Four critical elements are necessary to accelerate sustainable development in poor nations:

The mobilisation of domestic resources by the private sector, such as what India and some other Third World countries are doing successfully; the inflow of more FDI for strengthening infrastructure and expanding manufacturing and agro-business; more foreign and local investment in securities markets; and the widening of education, particularly of female children.

Anthropology suggests that people will always respond positively to economic and educational opportunities - and adjust family size accordingly. Few parents wish to have children whom they cannot feed.

For three decades I have known the leading dramatis personae of the population and development business. Some of them became friends. But, in the end, many of them turned out to be frauds, however clever, however charming.

For them, social development has meant self-aggrandisement. This international class of povertycrats, regrettably, has only a promising future to look forward to.


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