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NEW YORK, Apr 2 2011 (IPS) - World population will soon reach seven billion, and the decisions taken now will have a major impact on life in the 21st century. Our greatest challenge is meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

I just visited Ethiopia, where I made the case to African finance ministers to invest in health and education, especially for young people. Considering that about 70 percent of Africas population is below the age of 30, theres an urgent need to make sure that they can claim their right to health, education and decent work. This is the only way they can become the powerful force for economic development and positive change that Africa needs.

The case of Ethiopia is a good example of the challenges the poorest countries are facing. Currently, Ethiopia has roughly the same population as Germany, but by mid-century Ethiopias population is projected to nearly double, while Germanys could drop by one seventh. Ethiopia and other developing countries are hard pressed to keep pace with the investments that are required to meet the needs of their growing populations.

In 2010, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that it would cost $182 million a year to provide modern family planning to every Ethiopian woman who wanted it. Meeting their needs now would result in 1.5 million fewer unintended pregnancies, 340,000 fewer abortions, 75,000 fewer infant deaths and an almost one-third drop in maternal deaths each year.

Yet, despite the many benefits of family planning, globally, 215 million women who would like to avoid or delay their next pregnancy lack access to modern contraception. Every day, 1,000 women in the developing world die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth and their deaths leave a gaping hole in families, diminishing the prospects of surviving children. No woman should die giving life.

When parents become convinced that their children will thrive, they tend to have smaller families. Lower birth rates do not, by themselves, guarantee greater prosperity, but they do make economic gains more attainable. East Asia reaped this demographic bonus during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and poverty rates dropped dramatically.

A paramount challenge of this century is to ensure the well-being and dignity of seven billion human beingsand the two billion more that are expected by 2045while protecting the intricate balance of nature on which all life depends.

Human activity is affecting every part of the planet, including its climate, and people in developing nations with limited resources are likely to suffer the worst consequences from drought, floods, heat waves and other climate-related disasters. Rising populations, coupled with environmental stress, are testing the limits of food and water security.

Tapping into the leadership of women and young people is our best hope for meeting the worlds most pressing challenges.

Today, young people make up almost half of the worlds population, and 60 percent of the population in least developed countries. They are already having a transformative impact on politics and culture and are leading the way on HIV prevention.

Investing in young people, and especially adolescent girls, is simply the smartest investment a country can make. It starts with each adolescent girl. Educated, healthy and skilled, she will be an active citizen in her community. She will become a mother when she is ready and be able to invest even more in her future childrens health and education. She will be able to contribute fully to her society and break the cycle of poverty.

In many ways, a world of seven billion people is a remarkable achievement. Globally, people are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives. Life expectancy worldwide has increased by 17 years since the early 1960s and the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in developing regions has dropped dramatically.

But the global trends mask wide disparities. High fertility, mortality and deprivation persist in the poorest countries, which struggle to keep pace with the needs of their growing populations.

Now is the time to invest in human capital to bridge these gaps and ensure that every woman, man and child can enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. In a world of seven billion people, and counting, we all have to count on each other. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is the Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.

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