June 1st, 2011 | Posted in Environment
by Karen Hardee, visiting senior fellow
On May 25th-26th, Population Footprints, the 2011 UCL-Leverhulme Trust Symposium on Human Population Growth and Global Carrying Capacity, convened in London, with participants from 31 countries. The opening sessions were linked to a satellite meeting in Nairobi, Kenya hosted by the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP). The symposium was webcast and available at http://www.populationfootprints.org. Leverhulme Trust and UCL should be congratulated for tackling a subject that is left unspoken in global discussions about challenges facing the world.
Haniia Zlotnik, head of the UN Population Division, and other panelists described the demographic realty of the 21st century. Forty-two percent of the world’s population live in countries with low fertility of less than one daughter per woman, 40 percent live in countries with intermediate fertility, and 18 percent live in countries with high fertility of more than 1.5 daughters per woman. Most of that 18 percent live in Africa, with very youthful populations. The world is half urban and continued growth will be in urban areas, with implications for consumption and energy use patterns. Low fertility countries face aging populations, and longevity is increasing. Migration patterns are adjusting to demographic and environmental change with women moving internationally as carers and people moving from environmentally fragile areas.
Speakers raised a range of issues, including the sustainability of world’s economic system that relies on continued growth and consumption and the relative weights and interactions among population, consumption, and technology in models of climate change. Rather than undue focus on global population averages, population is important at a regional and local scale because of pressure on resources, health, environment, economics, and adaptation to climate change. The conference made clear that family planning is valid in its own right and must be provided through rights-based programming. At the same time, family planning can help reduce environmental degradation through women choosing lowered fertility and likely helps build resilience to the effects of climate change. Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, reminded the conference that empowering the world’s 2 billion young people will be key.
For me, the highlight of the conference was the opening at which His Excellency Ernest Rwamucyo, High Commission from Rwanda delivered a keynote from the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeanette Kagame. Mr. Rwamucyo described Rwanda, a country concerned about its population density and rate of growth, given the county’s geographic size and lack of abundant natural resources. Wanting its population to be a benefit rather than a burden, Rwanda is working to enhance human capital through a focus on education and health care, including reproductive health and family planning.
Rwanda’s approach to family planning, based on the principles from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), provides a blueprint for the 21st Century. Acutely aware of the pressure of a growing population on its fragile environment, Rwanda is operationalizing the principle articulated at the United Nations International Conference on Human Rights, held in Tehran in 1968. Article 16 stated that “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.” This principle underpins the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), although the concept of responsibility has been largely ignored in implementation of the ICPD. Rwanda is combining high-level policy support with community engagement to work with families to decide freely and responsibly the number of children they can support. With 56 percent of its parliament female, women are at the center of Rwanda’s progress. Uganda’s Minister of Planning and Finance, Professor Ephraim Kamuntu, reminded the conference that solutions need to be practical and cognizant of costs, given the current environment of resource scarcity. Dr. Sarah Harper from Oxford said that people have woken up to the fact that population is a critical issue for the 21st Century. Rwanda’s model stressing rights and responsibilities, combined with programming to ensure the wellbeing of its people, provides a blueprint for addressing population the 21st century.