Global efforts to fight poverty through better population management have not resulted in major breakthroughs in the past 10 years due to lack of funding, says a fresh report by the United Nations Population Fund.
Family planning is not a high priority on international agendas
The study released on Wednesday in London and Berlin focused on the small steps that have taken place since 1994 when a landmark UN conference in Cairo first specifically addressed the intertwined problems of population growth and global poverty. At that time, 179 countries agreed to a 20-year action plan to improve the situation in developing countries.
At half-time on the road to implementing the Cairo plan, strides have certainly been made, but as the UNFPA points out, there is also a growing tendency to neglect the population issue when it comes to providing much-needed funds.
Managing population growth
The good news first: United Nations efforts to get a handle on explosive population growth have yielded tangible results in recent years, especially in the areas of reproductive health. While the world's population has grown by one billion people to a total of 6.4 billion, 151 countries have passed legislation guaranteeing the right of women and girls to self-determination and acknowledging birth control as a basic human right. UNFPA representative Bettina Maas told the press in Berlin that the fact that so many countries had created such a framework on the national and local level was a major achievement, but implementation still left much to be desired.
Clinic run by nuns in the village of Kati, near Bamako, Mali, hands out contraceptives to women.
"Many laws have been put in place in the developing world to make population efforts compliant with the Cairo plan of action and international human rights. But implementation still lags behind," Maas said.
The process of distributing contraceptives in developing countries is especially difficult, Maas explained. Although she said Islamic and Christian religious leaders often stood in the way of reproductive programs, it was unfair to blame religion as a whole for deficiencies. The Vatican may still be a problem in many strongly Catholic regions, she said, but many church leaders have also stressed that it is "a right to use family planning and contraceptives."
Failure to stick to commitments
Honduran woman and children sit in mud-floor home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Maas called the Cairo plan for population management an extremely important tool in reducing poverty in the world's most populous countries, but lamented that 10 years after it had been conceived many nations had failed to live up to their financial commitments. With more money, even more improvements could be made and the UNFPA could reach its targets for improving living conditions in the developing world by 2015.
Renate Bähr from the German Institute for World Population Studies said the lack of financial backing was unfortunate. With an annual budget of $3.9 billion (€3.2 billion) -- a sum which is spent on armaments and defense projects globally in just two days -- enough condoms could be supplied to cover the world need. Bähr said the money would go a long way in preventing 23 million unwanted births, 22 million abortions and 142,000 post-pregnancy deaths.
"The response of the international community has been inadequate," the UNFPA study concluded. "Past commitments to development assistance must move from declarations of good intentions to active partnerships and investments," it said.
Students are taught how to use a condom at an AIDS awareness activity at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The UNFPA focused criticism on the United States for stopping donations to the World Population Fund for the third time in a row, claiming the money is used for abortion programs in countries like China -- a position the UN denies vociferously. Bähr, whose organization has appealed to Germany and Europe to adopt a more open stance on population management, also criticized the Vatican and the US administration's "abstinence-only" approach towards family planning.
In spite of domestic budgetary constraints, Germany is still among the four biggest donors to the World Population Fund. Erich Stather, deputy minister in the German Development Ministry, said Berlin was currently allocating around €150 million ($182 million) to the fund annually. He admitted that €250 million more would actually be required to meet the Cairo pledge, but said that Germany had already earmarked about a billion euros for projects to fight AIDS in developing countries and Eastern Europe.