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POLITICS: Wolfowitz Contradicted on Family Planning Claim

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Apr 12 2007 (IPS) - Despite denials by World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz Thursday, newly disclosed internal documents indicate that the Bank may have in fact reversed a longstanding policy of promoting family planning on his watch.

The contradictions could further intensify Wolfowitz’s troubles at the Bank, where he and his office had made statements denying his personal involvement in two unusually high pay raises given to his girlfriend and fellow Bank worker Shaha Riza.

After initially distancing himself from the decision, Wolfowitz made a humiliating apology on Thursday and admitted engineering the hike. His mea culpa failed to satisfy the 10,000-member Bank Staff Association, however, which has called for Wolfowitz’s resignation.

The same day, when asked by U.S. National Public Radio at a press conference opening the spring meetings of the World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, whether the Bank has changed its policy on family planning, Wolfowitz denied there had been any changes.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I have seen rumours about that. Let me make it very clear. Our policy hasn’t changed.”

But according to an internal email made public by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistleblower protection organisation, Managing Director (MD) Juan José Daboub, an appointee of Wolfowitz and a man known for his conservative stance on family issues, had in fact instructed a team of Bank specialists to delete all references to family planning from the proposed Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) for the African nation of Madagascar.

CAS’s are long-term plans that lay out World Bank lending priorities for a specific country.

Wolfowitz hired Daboub in April 2006. He is the former finance minister of El Salvador and a member of that country’s right-wing ARENA party, closely identified with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which, in contrast to the more progressive pastoral clergy in Central America, opposes contraception and equal rights for women.

Daboub is scheduled to speak at the Vatican on May 2, according to the Acton Institute.

The email, dated Mar. 8, 2007, was sent from Lilia Burunciuc, the Madagascar country programme coordinator, who reports through the Africa Region Vice President to MD Juan José Daboub.

“By the way, one of the requests received from the MD [Daboub] was to take out all references to family planning,” the email says. “We did that. However, this is a potential problem for us as the upcoming Health SWAP includes family planning measures in response to the Government’s strong request for help in this area…”

GAP, the organisation that was central in exposing the large pay raises to Wolfowitz’s companion, also obtained another document that shows the Bank backpedaling on family planning – a draft from Daboub’s office of the pending Health, Nutrition, and Population Strategy (HNP).

Unlike the existing strategy, which sets the guidelines for Bank loans and involvement, the draft paper mentions family planning only once and the reference is to a past programme.

This contradicts the previous HNP strategy, issued in 1997, which set priorities in this area for loan programmes and identified lack of access to family planning services as a primary health challenge.

The original strategy also deals with abortion, the use of condoms and sexual education, all troubling issues for conservative U.S. politicians and their constituents in the extreme Christian right – a base of support for the George W. Bush administration whose influence led to Wolfowitz’s appointment in the first place.

“This deletion marks a dramatic departure from the priorities set out in the existing HNP Strategy, which focuses heavily on family planning and cites high fertility as one of four primary health challenges,” said GAP in its statement.

The new 197-page proposed strategy, seen by IPS, fails to emphasise family planning or contraception, as originally mentioned.

Instead it says Bank-funded operations “will emphasise options for improving demand for reproductive health advice and services by strengthening female education, improving women’s economic opportunities and reducing gender disparities.”

The contradictory statements from Wolfowitz about the family planning programme could be another source of conflict for him, with many Bank directors and senior staff appearing weary of his neo-conservative credentials and bid to surround himself with conservative aides in an international institution.

Many had previously expressed concern that he would bring conservative policies on health, women and family planning to the World Bank, which lends some 23 billion dollars a year to poor nations, but their fears did not appear substantiated until Thursday’s disclosure.

“This effort to deprive impoverished women and men in poor countries of the freedom to control their family size, while condemning women to unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, is unthinkable in a public health programme prepared by a development institution,” said Bea Edwards, GAP’s international programme director.

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