Missing the goals

The Millennium Development Goals are undermined by a failure to tackle population growth says CIWEM executive director, Nick Reeves

Our political leaders, and the panjandrums of global institutions like the United Nations, thrive on big-ticket issues that beg even bigger responses. These usually take the form of blowsy-bold vision statements, big global strategies and wildly

ambitious targets. To satisfy our leaders’ ambition, and sometimes their vanity, their plans must grab the attention of voters and the world’s media.

In 2000 the UN set eight goals for global development, to be achieved by 2015.

These are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that provided a platform for eco-celebs and an opportunity for world leaders to rub shoulders with ageing rock stars who suddenly ‘got it’ and came over all ethical.

They are big and meaty. So, in case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you what they are: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empowerment of women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; create a global partnership for development. It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of the ambition which, if

successful, would change the world forever and ensure clean wholesome water for all.

Unfortunately, the MDGs were doomed from the outset, trumped by the sheer scale of their ambition and by an oversight so huge that nobody spotted it. The MDGs made absolutely no reference to population growth. Many of the countries with the greatest levels of poverty and greatest need to achieve the MDGs also gave high birth rates, large populations, increasing water scarcity and poor sanitation.

Do the sums and the problem couldn’t be more obvious. In the second half of the twentieth century global population grew from under three billion to over six billion – a staggering rate of increase by anyone’s measure.

On the whole, those countries and regions of the world where information and contraceptives were made available saw a moderate to rapid decline in birth rate. In addition, there was an improvement in the economy, the health of women and their families and the autonomy, education and status of women.

The countries where many pregnancies remained unwanted and the birth rate did not fall are now seeing an explosive growth of urban slums, a failure of the state to keep pace with educational demands, environmental degradation and the continuing oppression of women. And food and water scarcity is adding to the existing burden of health problems and disease.

Over the past 12 years, the focus on population growth has been lost, even though the global population is expected to rise to between nine and ten billion by 2050. Of this growth, more than 90% will be concentrated in the poorest countries. A marked reluctance to discuss population publicly, even by the green

movement, has added to the urgency of addressing it now. Scratch the surface of any social, environmental and economic problem and population growth is the root cause. But, for many it remains the big environmental issue that dare not speak its name.

Reproductive healthcare

The UN has now approved a new MDG target, calling for universal access to reproductive healthcare by 2015. While this is a welcome move, unless and until there is a greater willingness to discuss and fix population policies this may prove to be yet another target that will never be achieved. The evidence is overwhelming: the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population growth. And, while most governments continue to duck the issue, the MDGs look set for total and absolute failure.

Reversing the loss of environmental resources cannot be achieved in the context of rapid or even moderate population growth without addressing the demographic factor – that is the counter-force reducing the impact of conservation efforts. It is self-evident that the massive growth in population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other factor.

Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to drinking water. As the population grows, twothirds of the world’s people will face moderate to high water shortages by 2050 and 50 countries will face serious shortages of water.

Consumption of fresh water for farming, industrial and domestic uses increased six-fold in the twentieth century. So, the MDG that promises environmental sustainability is drifting towards the realms of fantasy and an opportunity lost.

In 1994 the UN hosted an International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. It produced a plan of action, that included a recommendation that governments should “meet the family planning needs of their populations as soon as possible and should, in all cases by the year 2015, seek to provide universal access to a full range of safe and reliable family-planning methods…”

Improved access to family planning is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing infant and maternal mortality. Slower population growth offers a demographic dividend, which opens the door to economic progress and permits a

country to invest in education and health and environmental improvements.

Decisions made

now can influence whether population levels in 2050 are sustainable or not and whether we can tackle climate change.

Large families are usually not the choice of the poor, but a result of their inability to exercise their options to manage their family size. The human right of couples to make voluntary decisions on when to have a child is fully compatible with the

welfare of the individual and the wellbeing of society. Wherever fertility has fallen there is little doubt that female empowerment to control fertility is a key part of the equation.

So, what’s to be done? First, overseas development aid should be targeted for

population and reproductive health and governments, the World Bank and donor agencies must increase their support for family planning. Second, ensure availability of contraceptive supplies as a top priority and eliminate barriers to family planning. Thirdly, ensure that the development, environment, reproductive health and family planning communities work together and address the problems caused by rapid population growth.

Finally, politicians must ditch the idea that people are just economic units contributing to the gross domestic product of their countries.

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