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DEVELOPMENT: Is It Time to Plan Another U.N. Population Meet?

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2009 (IPS) - When the United Nations commemorated the 15th anniversary of the 1994 landmark conference on population and development (ICPD) last week, one of the questions lingering in the minds of many seemed obvious: is it time to plan another major conference on population?

The United Nations, which has hosted international conferences on population every 10 years, is increasingly facing new economic and social challenges relating to population growth, reproductive rights, gender empowerment and sexual violence.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says that despite the tremendous progress made since the ICPD, there are still some 200 million women who do not have access to safe and effective contraception while “too many women resort to unsafe abortions because they lack access to family planning”.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), said last week that 179 governments meeting at ICPD in Cairo 15 years ago “ignited a spark of change that continues to improve the lives of peoples”.

She said the right to sexual and reproductive health and women’s empowerment are core to the linkages of population and development.

Obaid said the ICPD agenda addresses the needs and rights of all people, irrespective of their situations, including migrants, refugees and displaced persons, and it makes the connection between population, the environment, and peace, security and development.

Asked about a follow-up to ICPD, Jyoti Shankar Singh, permanent observer to the U.N. for Partners in Population and Development (PPD), told IPS there has to be detailed preparatory work before any global conference.

Such a conference needs authorisation by the 192-member General Assembly, and would also require a minimum of two to three years of preparation, he said.

“But 2014 or 2015, in my view, will be a good time to have a global conference,” said Singh, a former deputy executive director of UNFPA and executive coordinator of ICPD.

The first major conference on population was the World Population Conference in Romania in 1974, followed by the International Conference on Population in Mexico in 1984, and ICPD in Egypt in 1994.

Anika Rahman, president of Americans for UNFPA, told IPS that a review conference of ICPD with intergovernmental and non-governmental involvement will provide an excellent forum to assess targets and determine next steps.

“While discussions will take place regularly, 2014 will be an appropriate time for the international community to join formally with governments to assess next steps,” she said.

The proposal for a major population conference also comes at a time when the United Nations is giving high priority to reaching its eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

The MDGs include a 50-percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

A summit meeting of 189 world leaders in September 2000 pledged to meet all of these goals by the year 2015. But their implementation has been thwarted by the global financial crisis and a decline in development aid by Western donors.

The MDGs are closely inter-related to several population related issues, including maternal mortality, poverty reduction and gender empowerment.

Rahman said that MDGs are challenging targets, and “now is the time to light a fire globally to step up political and financial commitments to achieve these goals”.

She pointed out that MDGs set out to achieve much needed progress to improve the health and dignity of women and families around the world.

“More commitment to saving women’s lives is essential as MDG 5 [on maternal health] is the goal with progress lagging the most,” Rahman added.

She also said that ongoing discussions and consultations on the next population conference are essential “as we work towards implementing the ICPD Programme of Action and achieving the MDGs”.

Addressing the ICPD’s 15th anniversary meeting at the United Nations last week, Dr Shashi Tharoor, India’s minister of state for external affairs, said a review would indicate that the global achievements have been mixed at best.

“There have been slippages internationally as well as in many countries, including my own,” he said.

He said it is a matter of regret that globally, “We are still far from realising the goal of universal primary education, while infant and child mortality and maternal mortality rates continue to remain high and access to universal reproductive health is still distant in many parts of the world.”

“Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that these goals are still achievable,” said Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for communications and public information.

He said resolute political will and concerted global action are needed to realise these goals. “The benchmarks set by the ICPD Conference continue to highlight the onerous task ahead for all of us,” he added.

In India, the world’s second most populous nation, the ICPD Programme of Action led to a shift in the government’s approach towards population stabilisation from being target-based to one based on making informed and voluntary choices.

The Cairo Consensus, achieved at ICPD, “provided much of the groundwork for the Millennium Development Goals, which have now become the benchmark indicators for socio-economic development”, he declared.

Singh told IPS that the ICPD Programme of Action will come to an end in 2014.

“A global conference will enable us to assess what progress has been made towards achieving ICPD goals [not all will have been achieved] and MDGs,” he said.

Such a conference will also “enable us to see what challenges and opportunities have come up and what the governments, non-governmental organisations and the international community should be doing in future”, said Singh, author of ‘Creating a New Consensus on Population: The Politics of Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights and Women’s Empowerment.’

In his book, Singh described ICPD as “one of the most significant global conferences ever” because it “radically transformed the views and perceptions of thousands of policy makers and programme managers on how population policies and programmes should be formulated and implemented in future”.

The conference also moved away from top-down approaches and pre-planned demographic goals to those that would seek to respond to the needs of couples and individuals.

At the same time, says Singh, the unparalleled exposure it received through newspapers, radio, television and the internet helped to bring issues relating to reproductive health, reproductive rights and women’s empowerment to the attention of millions of women and men around the world, and “may indeed have enhanced their understanding and appreciation of these issues in a positive manner”.

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