Monday was World Population Day, and in order to mark the occasion, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has launched a new campaign, 7 Billion Actions. (Come this October, world population is slated to reach the 7 billion mark.) A recently released UNFPA video highlights that 1.2 billion people are living in poverty, 1 billion adults are illiterate, and most of these are women and children. The video ends with a new slogan: “New Numbers. Old Patterns. Change Them.” While this is certainly a noble motto for a campaign, the corrective solutions that the UNFPA proposes are a mixed bag of oldhabits that not only violate the dignity of the human person but will once again prove ineffective.
What are the “old patterns” the slogan refers to? We have to assume, when it’s the UNFPA running a campaign, that they’re referring to the apparent large number of adults reproducing without restraint, thus expending what little resources communities and governments have and worsening the problem of poverty. In order to change these old patterns, the UNFPA has only one solution to offer. In his 2011 World Population Day statement, UNFPA’s newly minted executive director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, said:
[Protecting reproductive health and rights is fundamental to our collective future and sustainable development. Together we can meet the needs of some 215 million women in developing countries who want to plan and space their births but do not have access to modern contraception. Together we can prevent the deaths of 1,000 women every day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.”
Once again, the UNFPA is turning to contraceptives as the primary solution to poverty, and indeed to achieving all the Millennium Development Goals.
In another UNFPA publication, entitled “Giving Birth Should Not be a Matter of Life and Death,” “access to voluntary family planning” is listed as the first step towards achieving maternal health, even though, in the same breath, it admits that access to family planning could only hope to reduce the maternal mortality by 20 percent. Of course, contraception keeps maternal mortality rates low by reducing the number of pregnancies, but it does little to keep women healthy during pregnancy and delivery. By UNFPA’s own admission, access to skilled care during pregnancy and delivery, coupled with emergency obstetric care, would reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent, enough to achieve MDG 5. But Dr. Babtunde Osotimehin has made it clear that UNFPA’s priorities are to provide access to modern contraception. And the longer it continues to focus most of its attention on family planning rather than on skilled care during delivery, the more women will continue to die in pregnancy and childbirth.
By showering the bottom billion with contraceptives as the solution to education and poverty, Dr. Osotimehim and UNFA reduce women to their mere biological functions while ignoring their cultural needs and environments. In an essay entitled “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies,” Harvard professor Lant Pritchett concludes that “there is statistically no significant effect of contraceptive prevalence on fertility rates.” Despite decades of research, and the fact that the evidence does not demonstrate any economic-development gains related to the provision of modern contraceptives, billions of dollars continue to be poured into their provision by organizations such as the UNFPA, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and individuals such as Ted Turner, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. These organizations and individuals, including Dr. Osotimehim, remain committed to outdated models of development that are rooted in the worst Western assumptions. Recent books such as Fatal Misconception and Unnatural Selection have outlined the reason why contraceptive-based development policies have consistently failed; such policy proposals deliver population control or management, not development.
Over the past 42 years, the UNFPA has consistently promulgated family planning, claiming contraceptives as the solution to our “old patterns.” The results? MDG 5 is the least-achieved Millennium Development Goal and we have neglected real solutions to poverty and education. Fortunately, there are other groups besides the UNFPA that are concerned about poverty and education and see potential in our (growing) populations. Organizations like ours, the World Youth Alliance, have also chosen to celebrate World Population Day, recognizing the link between human persons and the generation of wealth using knowledge, skills and creativity.
Population-management programs categorize human beings, especially vulnerable populations, as burdens instead of essential participants in long-term economic development. The premise that fixed resources and equitable distribution require fewer individuals is not only flawed but inconsistent with human dignity. The fact remains that fewer people does not equal economic development, and population management programs look for the easiest way to get there, ignoring the real causes of economic growth: anti-corruption policies, protection of basic human rights, access to education (especially for women), and investment in infrastructure. These are indeed new numbers and old patterns, but these old patterns won’t be solved by relying on old, outdated habits. If the international community wants to see real results in the field of development, it’s these old habits and outdated solutions that are going to have to change.
— Rebecca Marchinda is the director of advocacy and Christopher White the international director of operations for the World Youth Alliance.