Finding Opportunity in a World of Seven Billion

United Nations – Next month, the world's population will reach seven billion people, a landmark that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is hailing in its drive to raise awareness about the need for global cooperation to solve issues of development.

On Wednesday, U.N. and civil society leaders gathered in a panel to discuss some of the challenges to components critical to economic and social development, especially health and education, as part of its 7 Billion Actions initiative, an awareness campaign that aims to serve as a platform for individuals, businesses, governments, and many others to facilitate collective action.

Although the resources needed to support a global population of seven billion are not disproportionately greater than those necessary to support 6.8, or 6.9 billion, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) called the milestone “a rare call- to-action opportunity to renew global commitment for a healthy and sustainable world”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked in his opening statement that those born today are born into “a world of contradictions”, one simultaneously containing extreme poverty and great wealth, and starving communities yet plenty of food. These paradoxes underscored what he called the “vast implications” of reaching a global population of seven billion.

Food and water crises, migration, land and conflicts are some of the issues that must be dealt with as the earth's population continues growing, said Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director and one of Wednesday's panellists. And while addressing health, family planning, and education should be priorities, “there is no one size fits all” solution, he emphasised.

Critically analysing what each country's circumstances would determine what steps would contribute most to that country's development, he said.

Similarly, Carsten Staur, permanent representative of Denmark to the U.N., cautioned that development must happen in a sustainable fashion.

“Seven billion is basically a wakeup call” driving home the importance of sustainable economic development, he said, adding that it begs the question of what it actually takes to create sustainable development, especially since as the global population grows, he noted, resources are consumed at an accelerating rate.

At its current growth rate, the world's population is projected reach nine billion by 2050 and 10 billion by 2100, according to the U.N.

Osotimehin told IPS that the 1.8 billion youth in the world, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries, must be regarded “as the face of the next phase of development” and therefore given access to education and other resources.

Female empowerment key to development

Empowerment of and investment in women and girls was, is, and will continue to be possibly the most critical element of efforts and initiatives for countries' development, the panellists agreed, and moderator Riz Khan, an international television host, remarked that in the developing world, women lead innovation.

Women produce half of the world's food and perform 66 percent of the world's work, yet earn just 10 percent of the world's income and own one percent of its property, says the agency UN Women.

Osotimehin told IPS that UNFPA needed to “create an awareness of people's rights and needs… particularly women and young girls,” who are the most vulnerable sector of the population, and ensure that girls' education was a priority.

U.N. agencies across the board, including UNFPA and UN Women, have acknowledged that cultural barriers can be obstacles to female empowerment, especially where tradition dictates that girls stay home and not go to school, and instead marry early. These agencies emphasise that government and grassroots initiatives must alter these expectations and enable girls to attend school and women to control how many children they want and when.

Naveen Salvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare and panel member, highlighted the advantages of new media in educating girls. In order to see how others approach similar problems, youth embrace social media and networking, even across different cultures, he said.

Salvadurai also suggested that developing countries not adhere to developed countries as an ideal model for development, because certain standards in industrialised countries simply aren't practical.

For instance, in cities in developing countries as well as developed ones, constructing well-designed public transit systems is far more practical, efficient, and sustainable than trying to ensure that everyone has a car, Salvadurai said.

He argued that development efforts skip the “rich world check list” and directly address the specific needs of less developed countries in order to be most effective and efficient, an idea that, given the fact the population and its needs will only continue to grow, may have some merit.