What Happened After Cairo? Assessing 20 Years of Work on “Population and Development“

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Twenty years after the first International Conference on Population and Development, a billion people have moved out of extreme poverty, literacy rates in some of the world’s least developed countries are on the rise, life expectancy is up and yet there remains far more to do.

The place was Egypt, the year, 1994. The number of governments present was 179. The issue on the table was, well, everything.

The acronym known to a knot of international development experts, activists and heads of state as the “ICPD” is a relatively obscure reference to the rest of the world.

It refers to a landmark gathering, the International Conference on Population and Development, where world leaders unanimously agreed to a remarkable set of goals to tackle some of the most pressing problems of the time: gaping inequalities, ragged poverty and environmental degradation.

Perhaps most significantly, the Egypt meeting in 1994 was the first time in history when every government present recognized that equality of the sexes, as well as sexual and reproductive health and rights, were “prerequisite” to sustainable development. The consensus paved the way for two decades of solid efforts to ship contraceptives to far-flung corners of the world, educate young people about sex and sexuality, and stem the bloodbath of maternal mortality.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Cairo conference, and the United Nations tells us there is a lot to celebrate: One billion people have moved out of extreme poverty; literacy rates in some of the world’s least developed countries are on the rise; life expectancy is up and fears of overpopulation have been largely dispelled, replaced by the more concrete analysis that overconsumption by wealthy nations, rather than rampant childbearing in poorer nations, is the main culprit behind ecological stress, global warming and aching hunger.

But scour the many thousands of pages dedicated to tracking progress on the ICPD Program of Action, and it would appear the good news stops there. This vague and nebulous topic known as “population and development” encompasses everything from slums and female genital mutilation to HIV and gender violence – and if you break them down to bare math, the numbers are stunning:

  • Every single day, 800 women die while giving birth.
  • In 2012, 863 million people were living in slums, up from 650 million in 1990.
  • The death rate from abortions in Africa and Asia stand at 460 and 160 deaths per 100,000 abortions.
  • Some 142 million girls are at risk of being married off before their 18th birthday, while 15 million girls, 15 to 19 years old, give birth every year.
  • One in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual abuse, most likely at the hands of an intimate partner.
  • About 125 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of female genital mutilation and cutting.
  • Roughly 15.4 million people were classified as refugees in 2012, the same year that saw 28.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
  • Over 30 percent of the world’s 7 billion people are still living in poverty.

It is hard to fathom such statistics, let alone the vast plains of law, policy and politics on which they lie. But we must grapple with them in order to understand the world we live in; we must assess where 20 years of massive economic growth and technological advancement have brought us and we must similarly use this moment to solemnly consider the changing population dynamics that will shape the next two decades.

Consider, for instance, that in 2007, for the first time in history, the global urban population exceeded the global rural population, with 54 percent of humans now dwelling in cities, a number that the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) says is projected to hit 66 percent by 2060.

Consider also that while maternal deaths have dropped by 47 percent over the last decade, some nations still lose one in 38 mothers for every 100,000 live births. In sub-Saharan Africa – the same region that is home to the 10 countries with the worst maternal mortality ratios in the world – 179,000 women die while giving birth every single year, according to the World Health Organization.

Consider that tucked under headlines celebrating advances in curbing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there is a full-blown crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, where new infections have grown by 55 percent (to 34,000) and where 270,000 people are currently living with the syndrome. All the while, according to UNAIDS, antiretroviral coverage in the region is a mere 14 percent, the lowest in the world.

And then consider that these staggering realities are hanging on the lip of a deep abyss, within which lurks the specter of catastrophic climate change: The latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in 3 million years, prompted by the ravenous consumption of just 11 percent of the population.

In fact, only a third of the world has consumption profiles that contribute to emissions, an unsurprising result of a horribly unequal division of wealth that has put 82 percent of the earth’s riches in the hands of 8 percent of the population. The remaining 92 percent will bear the brunt of changing climates, the predicted 25-percent reduction in crop yields and 84-percent food price hikes feared by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

What happened after Cairo? In 1994, policies were set in place to tackle every single one of the issues listed above, and more, much more. Between then and now, global GDP has grown to $223 trillion, according to the 2012 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, but it would be fair to conclude that progress in achieving unanimously accepted goals has not been nearly as impressive.

The options today are more limited than they were in the 1990s. The enormity of the challenges ahead seems to point to only two paths: to go on as before and accept a stunning loss of life and wretchedness of existence for billions, or walk a different road, a less incremental one, towards a revolutionary redistribution of wealth and a more sustainable social and economic system.

The year is 2014. You decide.