Rehash old fears and update them with the alarmist topic du jour – that s the recipe for the United Nations Population Fund s annual report this Wednesday dedicated to climate change. Its State of World Population 2009 correctly points out that poor women will be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. But it focuses on old-fashioned population control instead of real ways to empower women against poverty and climate change.
The UNFPA was created in the late 1960s when predictions were rife that population growth would lead to mass famine, environmental destruction and poverty. So it was without shame that the UNFPA awarded its first ever population award in 1983 to Dr. Qian Xinzhong, responsible for overseeing China s savage one-child policy.
But these apocalyptic claims failed to materialize – and the UNFPA lost its raison d’être. Yet it continues to make the case for population control, albeit in a concealed way.
The UNFPA has jumped on many bandwagons, from health to climate change, and, whatever the problem, it always reaches the conclusion that population is the problem and condoms the answer. It blames all sorts of economic, social and environmental ills on overpopulation and rapid population growth. In fact, terrible things like deforestation, slums, lack of access to food and water are symptoms of poverty not population. Reduced fertility rates will not alleviate either these symptoms or the causes of poverty: regulation, corruption and oppression.
In fact, there is no causal relationship between population density and poverty. People are only too happy to accept that India is overpopulated but they would never suggest such a thing of the Netherlands or Israel, both with higher population density.
Similarly, environmental conditions have been improving in many parts of the world -thanks to development and economic growth, not reduced population growth. The UNFPA says: “The damage done to the environment by modern society is one of the most inequitable risks of our time. The UNFPA is right in thinking that the poorest people live in the worst and toughest environments. But the blame should not be on First World industrialisation but, once again, on poverty. Economic development, allows people to overcome environmental problems. It is poor countries that experience the worst deforestation, the worst water and air pollution and soil erosion.
The UNFPA s latest report argues that family planning, contraception and education are not only desirable because they empower women (which is true) but also because they lead to “lower fertility rates that contribute to slower growth in greenhouse-gas emissions in the long run.
But it is not evident that these things reduce births, despite the UNFPA’s cherry-picked examples. There are plenty of counter-examples where such programmes have had no impact on fertility rates. And there are plenty more examples when no programmes have been put in place and where births still decreased. Mexico had family planning programmes from 1974 to the end of the century while Brazil had none but both countries’ fertility fell at similar rates.
The UNFPA’s attitude is patronizing, assuming most women want fewer children. And the only foolproof way of reducing fertility rates is coercion, as in India in the 1970s or China today.
Rather than recommend condoms to cool the climate, the UNFPA should study the precise problems that women face today and that may worsen with climate change, such as hunger, dirty water and diseases. Economic freedom – not contraception – is the key to overcoming those problems, to economic development and to empowering women.
Women in poor countries need to be able to own property and businesses, to trade freely and participate in the formal economy. Only then will they cast off the shackles of poverty.
Caroline Boin is a Project Director at International Policy Network, London, an independent think-tank working on economic development.