Politics & Policy

Usurping Urbanization

The UNFPA lays its latest claim on urban populations.

By now it is a hallowed tradition at the United Nations. Each year, the U.N. Population Fund — the world’s professional population controllers — releases its annual exercise in alarmism, the State of the World Population report.

#ad#This year’s report is about urbanization. Its primary conclusion, like every UNFPA study, establishes the dire need for UNFPA forte : the promotion of fertility decline through cultural and legal change and, more importantly, through the massive importation of contraceptives and abortifacients into the developing world.

So it has been with environmental degradation, AIDS, poverty, women’s empowerment, and children’s health, and so it is now with urbanization — always acquiescing to an absurd kind of logic — always concluding that any problem involving humans will necessarily be improved if there are fewer humans in the world.

It is difficult not to feel a bit sorry for the staff at UNFPA, who must resort to these means to justify the very existence of their institution. UNFPA was founded at the height of the population bomb, and its prestige crested with that particular hysteria. So “popular” was the cause, that in the late-1970s UNFPA helped the Chinese government to establish its massive campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations (called the “one-child policy”), and it did so publicly and proudly.

But it has been a long time since those halcyon days. The developed world has experienced unprecedented fertility decline for over a generation; German fertility was considerably higher amidst the rubble of 1946 than the prosperity of 2007. The inevitable population decline has already taken hold; the Russian population is falling by over 800,000 people every year. The populations of many developed nations are projected to decline by 20 to 40 percent over the next four decades.

In the developing world, most countries are well on the way toward replacement rate fertility (about two children per woman). Every fertility trend, on every continent, in poor as well as rich nations, points inexorably downward.

These facts are bad for the population control business, and therefore UNFPA must appropriate other problems. This year their problem is urbanization. Why urbanization? On some day during the next few months, for the first time in history, more people will live in cities than in rural areas; and this signifies a milestone that no respectable population institution can ignore.

But, for UNFPA, there are two difficulties. First, urbanization is not a bad thing, a point that UNFPA grudgingly admits in some sections of the report. Economies prosper and individuals gain opportunities through urbanization. The difficulties that do arise are local problems, best dealt with by local governments; so urbanization is not a problem to be solved by an international organization like UNFPA.

Second, urbanization is a form of population growth by movement — migrants leaving the farm for the greater promise of life in the big city — so it is not a problem to be solved by an international organization (like UNFPA) that seeks to reduce population growth specifically through fertility decline. Urbanization is simply not the kind of population growth with which UNFPA ought to be concerned.

Moreover there is a bit of desperation in UNFPA’s quest to appropriate urbanization; town population growth is the only population growth in town, so to speak, since rural population is already falling throughout the world. So if UNFPA cannot claim urbanization for itself, there really is no population issue left for it.

To solve their first problem (in other words, to make urbanization a problem), UNFPA paints a picture of ever-expanding urban blight. The British newspaper, The Independent, captures the tone that UNFPA sets in its headline on the report: Planet of the Slums: UN Warns Urban Populations Set to Double.

What happens in all of those slums? People become religious. According to UNFPA:

The revival of religious adherence in its varied forms is one of the more noticeable cultural transformations accompanying urbanization. Rapid urbanization was expected to mean the triumph of rationality, secular values and the demystification of the world, as well as the relegation of religion to a secondary role. Instead, there has been a renewal in religious interest in many countries.

Leaving aside the obvious condescension towards religion, why highlight this particular point? Thorya Obaid, UNFPA’s executive director, explained it all to the Associated Press:

[If]…cities fail to meet the needs of migrant populations, they could face social unrest, including religious extremism. Extremism is often a reaction to rapid and sudden change or to a feeling of exclusion and injustice, and the cities can be a basis for that if they are not well managed.

Urbanization causes religious extremism; in other words, terrorism. This is a neat trick, noting how few high-rises buildings dot the landscapes of places like Afghanistan or Yemen. So UNFPA hopes to link a population issue to the most essential issue of the day, thereby making urbanization a problem, indeed.

In solving their second problem (to make urbanization a per se UNFPA problem), UNFPA faces an even more difficult task: it must prove that urban growth is caused by babies in cradles and not peasants abandoning their farms. And that is exactly what UNFPA claims:

Most people think that migration is the dominant factor; in fact, the main cause today is generally natural increase [births]….The latest comprehensive research effort to separate natural increase from other components of urban growth puts the contribution of natural increase at about 60 per cent in the median country. The remaining part of urban growth — roughly 40 per cent — is a combination of migration and reclassification.

This statement is repeated as mantra, for it is the essential point of the entire report. And UNFPA is not subtle:

Given the greater importance of natural increase and the failure of anti-migration policies, it seems obvious that fertility decline is much more likely than migration controls to reduce the rate of urban growth.….Policies that aim to slow urban growth should therefore shift their attention to the positive factors that affect fertility decline — social development, investments in health and education, the empowerment of women and better access to reproductive health services. On reflection, it is surprising how rarely this agenda has influenced policy decisions, as opposed to an anti-immigration approach.

And which international agency is expert at fertility decline through the provision of “reproductive health services?” Which international agency will need to be called in (and, thus, amply funded) to address urban growth, if urban growth is caused by natural increase? Why, UNFPA, of course.

But this argument is meant to deceive. For one thing, China (where the one-child policy has slashed fertility so much that migration is the obvious cause of urban growth) is excluded from consideration. For another thing, UNFPA counts births to migrants as part of “natural increase.” Of course, those babies would not have been born in cities at all had their parents not migrated to those cities in the first place, rendering the distinction between natural increase and migration meaningless (unless, of course, one has an agenda when using it).

UNFPA’s agenda is clear: It seeks to promote an apparent cult of universal fertility control, including both urban and rural areas in its purview: “Since high fertility in rural areas often underlies rural-urban migration, lower fertility in both rural and urban areas can decelerate urban growth.”

So urbanization is baby-induced and terrorist-producing, thereby requiring UNFPA intervention to promote fertility decline everywhere. Most American conservatives would simply discount this report as typical of the particular genre, expecting nothing less preposterous of a U.N. institution. But studies like this one are used to justify massive international investments in “reproductive health services.” In fact, UNFPA has already spent over $6 billion.

The U.S. Agency for International Development continues to spend hundreds of millions more dollars on the same programs, year after year, as it has for nearly forty years. Though fertility has indeed plummeted, not a single developing nation has joined the ranks of the developed world as a result of fertility decline. Nonetheless, and without falter, the international community seeks to answer every development challenge by depressing fertility further.

None of this will change until the ideology of population control — rooted in the idea that people are a problem to be solved — is replaced by the recognition that people are the world’s greatest resource. But don’t expect change any time soon; just last week, the World Bank reported that it has discovered the key to African development. Take a guess at what it is.

– Douglas A. Sylva is a senior fellow at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.

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