The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development is now history. Even before the delegates left Cairo there was a rush to proclaim the meeting a triumph. Despite the fact that the abortion controversy captured the daily headlines and all but paralyzed progress on other topics for most of the meeting, the U.S. delegation claimed a major victory in the consensus reached by the representatives of the 180 governments in attendance. Since so many have been so pleased with the outcome, a few reservations may be in order; but first a few observations on the magnitude of the problem.
The delegates in Cairo were confronted with a world population approaching 5.7 billion and growing at a rate that, if continued, would double that in little more than forty years. The increase of close to one billion people in the 1990s alone is the greatest increase in a decade in history, even though the rate of growth is declining. Vice President Al Gore, in his remarks at the opening of the conference, dramatized the time perspective of this growth:
We would not be here if we did not think that the rapid and unsustainable growth of human population was an issue of the utmost urgency. It took 10,000 generations for the world's population to reach two billion people. Yet over the past fifty years, we have gone from two billion to more than five-and-a-half billion. And we are on a path to increase to nine or ten billion over the next fifty years. Ten thousand generations to reach two billion and then in one human lifetime--ours--we leap from two billion toward ten billion.
These are forceful words, nowhere to be found in the Cairo report. Perhaps it is the deadening language of international meetings or the pervasive sensitivity to national sovereignty that leads to platitudinous recommendations. Or perhaps it was the effect of the women's well-organized efforts to substitute their own agenda, which enshrined the "empowerment of women" and reproductive health concerns. Demographic targets were dismissed as potentially coercive. In a spirit of elevating the level of discourse, the population subject per se was submerged in the rhetoric of reproductive rights and "sustainable development." In fact, it became almost mandatory to explicitly denigrate the whole subject of population growth and subordinate it to other issues. This tendency was reflected succinctly in the remarks of Egypt's President Muhammad Mubarak, who was the host of the meeting:
...the population problem facing the world today cannot be correctly solved on the basis of handling the demographic dimensions only; it should be dealt with in close relation to the problems of social, economic and cultural development. Improving women's conditions, especially in developing countries, is the cornerstone of any demographic policy.
This reluctance to deal directly with the issue of high fertility and the tendency to bury the problem in other related subjects is dramatically evident from one calculation that an earlier draft produced an estimated 1,170 recommendations (a staggering number), of which only a dozen directly addressed population growth.
More than for either of the preceding international population …