Sometime this month the world’s population will reach a milestone seven billion people.
That is up from three billion when I was in high school.
And the seven billionth world citizen will almost definitely be born into poverty, hunger and sickness in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is growing fastest.
At times, after walking through the crowded streets of Calcutta and Bombay, or the endless warrens of Lagos and Nairobi, I have felt dizzy at the endlessness of it all.
Yes, each face may produce an eager smile and each young Indian or African might potentially be another Bach or Bill Gates. Realistically, however, they are all sharing ever smaller portions of the world’s finite resources.
When the UN and charities such as Save the Children asked for funds in the 50s and 60s to save babies from death and disease, the U.S. government and private donors always gave. But when hundreds of millions of those children survived past their fifth birthday thanks to foreign aid of food and medicine, they found no place in the schools, scant food at home, no jobs and no land. And now the donors were not so generous.
Saving cute babies is always popular, but dealing with rowdy adolescents is not.
So not only do we have a population explosion partly created through cheap medicine that reduced infant death rates. We have a huge population of dissatisfied youth, a demographic that is generally destabilizing.
Global leaders are trying to put a positive spin onto this new 7 billion people watershed claiming there is plenty of food for all, and by smart aid, we can feed and educate everyone.
In bureaucratic jargon they say reaching 7 billion is “both a challenge and opportunity.” And aid officials claim huge success in the population war because only 70 million people are being added each year, down from 82 million at the peak of population expansion in 1991.
Great. But what this means is that by 2100, the planet’s population will grow to reach 10 billion people.
We are whistling past the graveyard if we deny the colossal failure of world leadership to provide birth control to the estimated 215 million women that want it today. Why have we been unable to prevent the population explosion even though we were forewarned?
The U.S., UN and non-governmental agencies responsible for delivering birth control around the world have been intimidated by an anti-family planning backlash in which birth control has been irresponsibly and falsely linked to abortion by the Catholic Church, Christian fundamentalists and hardline Muslims. Birth control has also been effectively linked to promiscuity by American fundamentalist Christians.
In some developing countries, birth control was attacked as a plot by rich countries to limit the number of non-whites on earth. And women’s groups have also attacked birth control as putting too much onus on women, especially during coercive family planning campaigns in India and China.
In fact, the main UN population agency website does not even mention “birth control” among its principal goals. Instead, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) website speaks at first only about supporting “reproductive health.” If you then click on those words you learn it actually means birth control as well as other activities.
The gun shy approach to family planning comes after the George W. Bush administration cut funding for UNFPA over dubious reports that UN family planning teams in China shared office space with Chinese officials engaged in forced abortions and sterilizations.
The anti birth control backlash in the last 15 years has undermined the global effort that was getting population growth under control in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now our children and grandchildren will inherit a world where forests have been burned for fuel or for pastures; and coral reefs are lifeless mortuaries smothered by runoff from the factories and fields invading wetlands and shores. A world where the majority of people live in cities that are teeming shantytowns of more than 10 million people with overflowing sewers, polluted water, and jobs that will never be enough for all those seeking work.
International donations of foreign aid to UNFPA to curb population growth have stagnated at $400 million per year, down from a peak of $700 million in 2002.
The United States is the largest contributor to global family planning but some of that aid has been cut or diverted to preventing HIV/AIDS. U.S. funding fell from $648 million in 2010 to $440 million in the current Republican 2011 budget, said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), former chair of the House foreign aid subcommittee. The House plans a further 25 percent cut in 2012, including renewing a ban on funds for UNFPA, Lowey wrote in Impact, a magazine of Population Services International.
Meanwhile the huge youth bulge in the poorest countries means that even if birth control was made available to millions of families who want it today, the world population will continue to grow for another generation or two.
To avoid the slashing of funds for birth control the UN and other agencies helping families space births or keep families small are focusing on fighting poverty and empowering women.
They are taking sides in a long and bitterly-fought debate among population experts. Some say that people have smaller families once they climb out of poverty and learn that most of their children survive (to care for parents in old age). Families also cannot afford to educate more than two children.
Others say the poor will never climb out of poverty until they can first limit the size of their families.
The executive director of UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, told me in September that Latin America although a largely Catholic continent has reined in population growth after most of its countries reached middle income, even though pockets of poverty remain.
“The poverty issue was removed, we have an acceptable level of education and women got skills and employment,” he said.
And even though they are Catholic, they got access to family planning, he said.
The UNFPA chief says that fighting to eliminate poverty is not an alternative to providing birth control both are needed if “we might slow the process [of population growth] even more.”
Stabilization, when births equal deaths and there is no more growth in population, might be below 10 billion, he said.
“We might be able to turn the tide once we reduce poverty, population growth goes down.”
Until then, family planning agencies are treading very carefully through the political and religious mine field that has blunted the battle with the population explosion. And our planet is increasingly polluted, crowded, and hungry.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at [email protected]
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.