WHEN 10,000 delegates, nongovernmental experts, and journalists
gather in Cairo Sept. 5 to 13 for the start of a United Nations
megaconference on population, the big news will be controversy.
The stage is set in the Egyptian capital for a dramatic clash of
cultures - between the Vatican and feminist groups.
But behind the big news will be the real news: When it comes to
the whys and hows of slowing world population growth, consensus is
broader than ever before. Without slower population growth, most
Cairo-based experts agree, it will be nearly impossible to retrieve
poor nations from the grip of underdevelopment.
"It's important to recognize just how far we've come," Sally
Shelton, an assistant administrator of the United States Agency for
International Development, told reporters recently.
"What we have in the run-up to Cairo ... is a clear and
widespread consensus from every single corner of the globe and from
all the various parties involved that rapid and unsustainable
population growth is a critical issue in the area of development,"
The goal of the 10-day conference will be to finalize and ratify
a draft 113-page "Programme of Action," a 20-year blueprint for
achieving population stabilization and other development objectives
that was drafted by the UN after extensive consultations.
Eighty-five percent of the document has been agreed on in advance
of the conference, known formally as the International Conference
on Population and Development.
Less controversy this time
Most of the objections pertain to language that could be
interpreted to permit abortion or modern methods of family
planning. Three-quarters of the 200 sentences or phrases that will
be debated at the conference were "bracketed" by the Vatican and
The high level of agreement that exists despite the bracketed
provisions contrasts sharply with the controversies that marked the
first global UN population conference.
At the meeting held in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974, divisions
formed over the issue of how to slow population growth. The US and
other Western democracies pressed the argument that the only way
developing countries could get runaway population growth under
control would be to institute family-planning programs. The
developing nations responded that little could be done about
population until economic and social conditions were improved. The
view was encapsulated in the catch phrase "development is the best
contraceptive," which became the informal slogan of the
Ten years later, the issue was whether population growth was a
problem worth worrying about. By the time delegates gathered in
Mexico City in 1984, most developing nations had come around to the
view that it was.
But this time it was the US that advanced the contrary view. In
Mexico, the Reagan administration reversed the working premise of
the previous five US presidential administrations by announcing
that population was a "neutral" factor in development, helpful or
harmful depending on the economic conditions existing in any given
"The relationship between population growth and economic
development is not a negative one," James Buckley, head of the US
delegation, told surprised conferees.
But behind the headlines, which focused on the controversies at
the two conferences, a consensus was taking shape on four issues
that will be central to the deliberations that begin in Cairo Sept.
* Rapid population growth can retard economic development.
* Governments should include strategies to slow population
growth in their planning for social and economic development.
* A need exists for international action, including financial
assistance, to support such strategies.
* Any solution to the population problem must include measures
to expand the rights and roles of women.
In the run-up to Cairo, conference organizers have been cheered
by a convergence of factors that augur well for success. …