Magazine article The Christian Century

Cairo Consensus: At the Population Conference

Magazine article The Christian Century

Cairo Consensus: At the Population Conference

Article excerpt

AS ONE approaches the Cairo airport by air, the view from the plane window is stunningly bleak. There is nothing but parched desert as far as the eye can see. How, one wonders, can a land like this support human life? Indeed, 96 percent of Egypt cannot support life, vegetative or human. Its 58 million citizens cluster in the precious 4 percent of arable land along the Nile.

This unusual site was perhaps an appropriate setting for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. Egypt could feed all its millions on a traditional Egyptian diet, especially if small frmers could continue their efficient ways. Two things block that: upper-class Egyptians eat a diet comparable to well-off Americans and Europeans. To accommodate their acquired tastes for meat and poultry, Egypt, according to Al-Ahram, a Cairo publication, now grows more food for livestock than for people and has become the largest Third World customer for American grain--which Egypt can ill afford. Second, the distribution of land is becoming more inequitable under "structural adjustment" privatization schemes that favor the large landholders and increase the number of landless peasants. These landless agrarian workers move in desperation into the bulging cities, especially Cairo, which is now up to 15 million. It is said that one person is born in Cairo every minute, and two arrive by train.

As ever, the results of injustice are lethal. A joint study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cairo University reports that in Upper Egypt, 83 percent of the children up to age five are malnourished, a third of them severely so, and 90 percent of the pregnant women are anemic, as are 80 percent of the children under two. As ever, "poverty is the ruin of the poor" (Prov. 10:15). And, as ever, injustice undermines the security of everyone.

Armed soldiers, some with bayonets drawn, were everywhere in Cairo. Revolutionaries who favor an Islamic state are in armed rebellion. A guard with a submachinegun rode in every tourist bus. Metal detectors and bag searches greet you at every hotel door. Egypt, with all its problems, is supporting a massive military establishment. Why? Is there some nation out there poised to invade and occupy this poor and troubled land? Clearly, these Egyptian troops are deployed to protect the status quo, for better or for worse.

One could feel annoyed at well-off Egyptians eating First World diets at the lovely Cairo Marriott until one realizes that, morally, they are us. They, like us, are the beneficiaries of maldistribution with a military base. The richest fifth of the world control four-fifths of its wealth, while the poorest three-fifths live on a singledigit fraction of the world's life-giving products. We, like the well-off over-consumers in Egypt and elsewhere, long for a technical fix to the crowded world's problems--anything but the appropriate sharing known as distributive justice. Cairo turned out to be an instructive and fitting site for the ICPD.

I was stalked in Cairo by the blunt thought that maldistribution may be too entrenched to be altered. for many people in the not-so-developing world, it is already too late. Estimates are that the earth can feed no more than 3 billion on an American middleclass diet. Since we are headed toward 6 billion with no end in sight, it is already too late for that. (The population of the world grew by over 2 million during the days of the Cairo conference.) And even with the mounting rhetoric about First World profligacy, lifestyle changes are not noticeable, nor are our pulpits ablaze with the topic. We at the conference enjoyed air conditioning and First World diets. The needed conversion is not in sight.

Still, the news from Cairo is not all dismal. An extraordinary, unprecedented conference took place. When before have representatives of all the world's nations come together in moral assembly to discuss the plight of the earth and its peoples, with women as well represented as men? …

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