The night after the Bush Administration announced its refusal to grant the United Nations Population Fund $34 million dollars, Jane Roberts was so outraged she couldn’t sleep.
The money had been appropriated to the agency by Congress and was to go to projects in 142 countries providing gynecological services, contraception and prevention of HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy. The State Department withdrew the funding allocation July 22, contending that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) tolerates forced sterilization and coerced abortions in China-charges that the Administration has failed to corroborate.
In fact, the State Department’s own team of delegates visited China to investigate the allegations, only to recommend that the $34 million be released to the UNFPA.
“I was lying in bed at 3 in the morning, thinking, ‘What can I do?,'” says Roberts, of Redlands, California.
But then she had a flash of inspiration. She decided to draft a letter to local newspapers, challenging readers to join her in protesting the Bush decision by sending $1-or more-to the UNFPA. The retired French teacher started e-mailing her call to action to about 300 like-minded friends and fellow activists. Soon a home-grown e-mail campaign was born, which has since gained UN support and the endorsement of a variety of national organizations, bringing the UNFPA more than $73,000 as of November 11 (click here for the latest figure).
What Roberts didn’t know when she sent out that first letter was that over 850 miles away, in Taos, New Mexico, another committed reformer was initiating her own grassroots campaign. Lois Abraham, a lawyer, mediator and arbitrator, was busily e-mailing friends and contacts, urging them to help fill the $34 million hole that the Bush Administration created. “In the context of our national budget, the context of our military budget, it’s a rounding error. But in the context of the suffering of this human family, it’s enormous,” Abraham says.
In early August the UNFPA learned about the individual efforts of Roberts and Abraham, introduced them and merged the crusade into the 34 Million Friends Campaign. Groups ranging from People for the American Way to the global population and development group of the Sierra Club have endorsed the campaign. While in New York promoting 34 Million Friends, Roberts received an offer of $5,000 from Face to Face Campaign for Women, money that will go toward college outreach so that campus groups can begin raising money for the effort.
Donations and letters have been pouring into the UNFPA at such a rate that the agency has hired two interns to sort and keep track of the incoming mail. While much of the total has come from $1 donations, the largest contribution was $25,000, and there have been a few $1,000 gifts.
The UNFPA estimates the 12.5 percent resource loss will result in approximately 4,700 maternal deaths; 77,000 infant and child deaths; 800,000 abortions; and 2 million unwanted pregnancies in the 142 countries where the agency funds projects. “These are real people, not numbers,” Abraham said.
Dr. Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the UNFPA, has launched the campaign on a global scale, beginning an outreach effort to raise money outside US borders. Abraham, Roberts the UNFPA and their supporters have pledged to keep campaigning until they collect the whole amount-but in addition to raising money, they hope to make a point.
“We do not consider it a substitute for the government doing the right thing,” said Dr. Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a coalition endorsing the campaign.
To give the Bush Administration your 2 cents and the UNFPA its $34 million, see www.unfpa.org/support/34million.htm, or send a tax-deductible donation to: The US Committee for UNFPA; 220 East 42nd Street, 28rd Floor; New York, NY 10017. Contributions over $1 are gratefully accepted.