At the turn of this century, in a rare burst of feel-good solidarity at the United Nations, member governments signed on to a very ambitious set of measures to combat just about everything wrong on the planet: poverty, disease, inequality, environmental degradation and imbalanced international finance and trade. They called the plan the Millennium Development Goals. This month, halfway to a 2015 finish line, comes the first big reckoning.
On September 25, in a summit-style gathering at the UN to which all 192 member nations are invited, successes and failures will be parsed, region by region, country by country. Then, predictably, the conversation will turn to money, the perennial quick fix prescribed for soul-destroying underdevelopment in the world’s poorest places. Money is always needed, but there is more to ensuring development than that.
Missing from these diplomatic extravaganzas are the voices of suffering people themselves, the billion or two (depending on what cutoff point you chose) who live on sums so small that hours of whatever work can be found after a scant breakfast will determine whether there will be another meal of any kind that day. Absent most of all will be the women who go to sleep exhausted and hungry, or weep when a sick or starving child cries for something the family cannot provide.
UN member nations have a poor record on keeping promises to women, even as UN officials insist repeatedly that the Millennium Goals won’t be met unless governments pay more attention to those who make up half their populations. At another summit in 2005, countries agreed to create a new under secretary-general position for women’s issues. Three years later there have been only more meetings and the inevitable position papers. Opposition comes from some large developing countries with most to gain from an empowered female population, from the Vatican, influential Arab states and the current US Administration.
Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, only 1.2 billion live in developed countries and their numbers are stabilizing or shrinking in some places. Almost all the new people in this century will be born trapped in cycles of high fertility and poverty, as Kofi Annan has said. But if women already in that trap were to address the coming summit, they would use words no longer heard much in polite diplomatic society, words like contraception, safe abortion, family planning, population pressure.
Neither the liberal left, professing cultural sensitivity, nor the conservative right, preaching abstinence and other unworkable ideas, want to hear the word “population,” which evokes the horror of forced abortion in China or involuntary sterilization in India decades ago. The long shadow of “population control” still hovers over the conversation.
Money for family planning has dropped precipitously since the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development agreed that women should take charge of their reproductive health and rights. Dependent entirely on donations, the United Nations Population Fund, known as UNFPA, struggles but can never keep up with huge demands for life-saving contraceptives, including condoms. The Administration of President George W. Bush cut off all US funding to the agency, accusing it of aiding abortion. Though other countries filled the hole in UNFPA’s income, American hostility has had a chilling effect internationally, according to officials involved in reproductive health. A McCain-Palin White House would make the situation much worse.