A Developing Country Perspective on
Population, Environment, and Development
By Adil Najam
Population Research and Policy Review, Vol. 15 No. 1, Pgs. 1-17
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Key words: Developing countries; population and environment;
international conferences; international cooperation; North-South
Abstract: The subject of this paper is the political behavior of
developing states (the South) on issues of population, environment and
development. It attempts to understand why the South is so weary of
international population policy in the name of the environment. It
argues that the South's response is shaped by five inter-related
concerns about responsibility, efficiency, efficacy, additionality, and
sovereignty. That is, the developing countries a) do not want their
population growth to be held responsible for global environmental
degradation; b) argue that more efficient solution to the environmental
crisis is consumption control in the North; c) believe that development
remains a necessary condition for efficacious population control; d) are
weary of the population priorities of the North distracting
international funds from other developmental goals of the South; and e)
are unprepared to accept any global population norms which challenge
their fundamental political, cultural or religious sovereignty. It is
maintained that these concerns have historically guided the positions of
the South are remain valid and relevant today. Although, over the last
two decades of North-South debate on the subject the nuances within
these concerns have evolved, the concerns themselves remain valid and
were apparent again at the 1994 International Conference on Population
and Development. Finally, it is proposed that although a grand
North-South bargain around population - environment - development issues
remains unlikely, both sides can gain much from trying to
understand-even where they do not agree with-the other's concerns. The
purpose of this study is not as much to defend the South's position, as
to present it and the rationale behind it.
The perception of population growth as a `problem' is not new.(1) That
the catastrophe predicted by so many has been averted till now does not
necessarily disprove the arguments of these Cassandras.(2) However,
Pollyannas like Julian Simon (1981) have taken much pleasure in rubbing
in this fact and insist that human ingenuity will continue to outpace
human propensity for procreation.(3) It is within this context that
much of the debate on the subject has been historically framed, with
occasional shifts in popular and scholarly sentiments towards one side
or the other.
In ancient times, people were few but wealthy and without strife.
People at present think that five sons are too many, and each son has
five sons also and before the death of the grandfather there are already
25 descendants. Therefore people are more and wealth is less; they work
hard and receive little. The life of a nation depend upon having enough
food, not upon the number of people.
- Han Fei-Tzu, circa 500 BC
The happiness of a country does not depend, absolutely, upon its poverty
or its riches, upon its youth or its age, upon its being thinly or fully
inhabited, but upon the rapidity with which it is increasing, upon the
degree in which the yearly increase of food approaches to the yearly
increase of an unrestricted population.
- Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, 1798
The causal chain of the deterioration [of the environment] is easily
followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much
detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage
treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide-all can be
traced easily to too many people.
- Paul R. Ehrlich, 1968
The pollution problem is a consequence of population.. Freedom to breed
will bring ruin to all.
- Garrett Hardin, 1968
The recent growth of popular interest in environmental issues has
generated a renewal of concern about rapid population growth, which is
seen as being largely responsible for global trends of environmental
degradation (Hardin 1968; Ehrlich 1968; Meadows et al. 1972; Holdren &
Ehrlich 1974; Brown 1981; Keyfitz 1989; Myers 1990). The causal
relationship between the two seems intuitively obvious. Yet, it is
being contested by a number of critical interests. Although some in the
population community may consider such views peripheral to the
mainstream debate, the prevalence and persistence of the dissension on
the environment-population linkage may be gauged from the fact that in
1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development, reached
unanimous agreement on all issues except two-Antarctica and the causal
significance of population growth (Shaw 1992). Again, at the 1992
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)
population remained the most contentious issue (Najam 1993a).
Most surprising is the reaction of the developing countries. On the one
hand, many of them have very high population growth rates and are most
immediately vulnerable to its consequences. At the same time, many of
them support strong domestic population policies, which have been in
place over long periods of time, and are vigorously-and sometimes
coercively-enforced. Yet, at the international level, these same states
seem hesitant, and sometimes hostile, to the notion of accepting a
direct causal link between global environmental degradation and
population growth. See Krasner (1985), Najam (1993a), Amalric & Banuri
(1993), Mahbub-ul-Haq (1994).
This paper attempts to understand why the developing countries of the
South are so weary of international population policy in the name of the
environment.(4) It is essentially a study of the political behavior of
Southern governments. It is argued that the South's response has been,
and continues to be, shaped by five inter-related concerns:
Responsibility: For precedent and principle, the South resists any
effort that implies holding population growth (largely in the South)
responsible for global environmental stress. Hence, the insistence that
"population growth in the developing countries is a national, not a
global problem" (Mahbub-ul-Haq 1976: 124). The South has consistently
held that the environmental crisis is of the North's making and has
based its demands for assistance/reparations on that `history of guilt.'
In accepting population growth as the causal motor of environmental
degradation the South loses this perceived leverage.
The rest of this paper will look at how the discussion on
population - environment - development policies ignores the South's concerns
and, in doing so, alienates the very group of countries that is being
required to carry out such policies. It will also briefly review the
effects of the 1994 International Conference on Population and
Development (ICPD) on the South's evolving position of the subject.
Finally, it shall attempt to highlight some implications for
Efficiency: From the perspective of international environmental
policy, the South insists that if the international concern about
population growth stems from its effects on global systems then it would
be more efficient to focus on consumption patterns. The argument is
that whatever effects population may have, they are only in relation to
consumption. As Ramphal (1994) stresses, once consumption is factored
in, the 1.2 billion people living in industrialized countries place a
pressure equivalent to more than 24 million living in the developing
countries. Thus, it would be more efficient to focus on policies that
curb consumption than on those that target procreation.
Efficacy: From the implementation end, developing countries argue
that development is still the best contraceptive. Experience in both
North and South shows that "people in the developed condition do not
have too many children" (Keyfitz 1991: 39-40). The South argues,
therefore, that if the international community is truly interested in
curbing population growth it should spend its dollars on assisting
economic and human development rather than simply enhancing
contraceptive provision. Although the argument that economic growth
will automatically slow population growth is contested (e.g., Harrison
1994), the assertion that social development will enhance the efficacy
of population policies is now widely accepted (e.g., Brower 1994;
Chhabra 1994; Harrison 1994; Lutz 1994; Ness 1994). The South builds on
this emerging consensus to reinforce and rearticulate its enduring call
that development (now more broadly defined) remains the best
contraceptive (see Mahbub-ul-Haq 1994, Najam 1993b, Ramphal 1994).
Additionality: Programatically, the South remains concerned that
greater donor assistance for population may translate to a lesser focus
on development assistance. Ever since US President Johnson's 1965
statement that "less than five dollars invested in population control is
worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth," developing
countries have doubted the motives behind the West's emphasis on
population control. Developing countries want to be sure that in
accepting donor priorities (i.e. population, environment, etc.) they
would not be asked to forfeit their own (i.e. development). For the
South, the end of the cold war means that the geopolitical strategic
value of Southern states has diminished, and new claimants to the
already shrinking international assistance pie have emerged. This has
reinvigorated the urgency of the additionality argument for the South.
Sovereignty: Politically, the South sees no contradiction between
actively pursuing population policies domestically, and resisting them
internationally. It sees population as an issue of sovereignty and any
interference from the international community as a breach thereof.
While recognizing the domestic benefits of slowed population growth and
pursuing policies to bring it about, the South is unprepared to hold its
policies subservient to external pressure. As Stephen Krasner points
out, "the South has maintained its unity, despite major differences
among individual countries, even in an issue area where the North has
offered additional resources" because "Southern resistance to Northern
efforts to develop international population norms is not simply a
product of specific national values, or evidence of a concern that
antinatalism may be a ploy for subordinating development aid, but is
also a reflection of the deep adherence of Third World states to the
prerogatives of sovereignty" (Krasner 1985: 276-8).
The Population-Environment-Development Nexus
In its most simple articulation, the argument of the new `green'
Cassandras has flowed from two observations: a) the planet has never
had as many people as it has today; and b) the planet has never seen as
much environmental stress on its natural systems as it is experiencing
today. The correlation between the two is then extrapolated to imply
In fairness to its proponents, the argument has become far more
sophisticated over time. The reigning view is best identified by the
Holdren-Ehrlich (1974) identity(5):
This identity, while not without serious limitations,(6) is elegant in
that it attempts to capture both the number of users and the rate of use
of natural systems. However, most scholars who use this, or similar,
formulations often end up focusing on the population variable rather
than the other two. For example, Nazli Choucri (1991: 100) suggests
that "the population nexus as a whole-the interaction of population,
resources, and technological change-must become the focus of global
policy." However, she is quick to add that while population policy
alone is by no means sufficient it is nonetheless necessary, implying
that it is here that the most emphasis should be invested. Others have
made similar arguments on the grounds that population policies will
`help buy time' (Keyfitz 1991; Shaw 1992). Implicit in such arguments
seems the belief that changing population patterns is somehow `easier'
than changing patterns of consumption or technology.
I = P A T
(Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology)
From the South's point of view, while the diagnosis suggests that both
the number (i.e. population growth) and the rate (i.e. consumption
patterns) are at least equally critical as motors of causality, the
prescription focuses unduly on the first and not enough on the later.
For many in the developing world, such a conceptualization adds insult
to injury in that the focus on population as the main cause of
environment degradation implicitly places the responsibility for such
degradation on their doorsteps, even though the `benefits' have been
reaped by those in the North.
Very often, then, the argument becomes merely a more sophisticated
rehash of the more simplistic conception introduced earlier. For
example, Nathan Keyfitz (1991: 77 & 44) writes:
In 1950 the world contained 2.5 billion people, and there was little
evidence of damage to the biosphere. Now with over 5 billion there is a
great deal of evidence with another 2.5 billion and continuance of
present trends of production and consumption, disaster faces us. The
planet cannot over a long period support that many people; yet an even
larger number is threatened... Twice as many people cooking with the
same wood stoves use up twice as much wood. Twice as many cars of a
given kind and given condition of repair put twice as much carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere. Twice as many fish eaters require twice as
large a catch. With all else constant, the requirements are the
simplest possible linear function of the number of people.
Ceteris, however, is not paribus. Keyfitz knows that all else is not
constant. He prefaces the above by saying that "with given technology
and given style of life the requirements from the environment are
proportional to the number of people" (p. 44). However, neither
technology nor lifestyle is `given.' Yet, he chooses (as do most other
analysts) to hold consumption constant in arguing for policies that
would control the population variable. The implication seems to be that
the North's lifestyle as it relates to consumption is accepted as a
`given' because it cannot (or is it, `should' not?) be changed, but the
South's lifestyle as it relates to procreation is not because it can.
The South's Response
Such arguments have the dual implication of holding population growth
responsible for environmental degradation and touting population control
as the most efficient option for environmental amelioration.
On the first count, the South responds by pointing out, for example,
that the average Bangladeshi uses 2 milligrams of CFCs per year in
comparison to the average U.S. citizen who uses 2 kilograms per year; as
such the `environmental impact' of an extra Bengali, in CFC terms, is
only 1/1000th that of an extra American. On the second, they reason
that even if the policy focus is to be only on population and not on
consumption, it makes more sense to do so in the North where one averted
birth is likely to produce 1000 times the environmental `benefit' that
it would in the South. Further, Southern commentators challenge the
assumption that it is somehow `easier' to reduce population amongst the
poor than to curb consumption amongst the rich. If environment is the
main concern, they argue, would it be easier to change lifestyles
(consumption) of the few who are very rich or the children preferences
of the very many who are poor. Arguably, the lifestyle change involved
in reducing CFC consumption for an individual in USA is no more
difficult-in fact, it should be far easier-than changing the children
preference demanded from a peasant in Bangladesh. See Mahbub-ul-Haq
(1994), Najam (1993b) and Ramphal (1994).
While the question of efficiency relates to the relative importance of
the various options to check environmental degradation, the issue of
efficacy concerns the effectiveness of various means to curb population
growth. Since the South nowhere questions the need for population
policies per se-and actively pursues them domestically-the efficacy of
such policies is crucial for implementation. This brings us to that
critical question of why people in poor conditions have high population
growth. Environmentalists tend to spend too much effort in arguing why
population should be controlled, and population experts spend too much
time in figuring out how it could be controlled, but way too little
thought is invested in why people have as many children as they do.
Falling mortality rates, old-age security, religion, and the sheer
inertia of the demographic momentum are all valid and important factors,
but they offer little in way of policy advice. For example, maintaining
high mortality is ethically unacceptable, quick changes in social or
religious preferences cannot be legislated, nor can changes in the
nature of demographic momentum.
For the poorest, the difference between having four children or five is
often not the difference between four hungry mouths to feed or five, but
that between eight hands to earn with or ten. The rational cost-benefit
analysis of childbearing decisions yields very different results where
children become earning members before age ten, from where parents have
to factor in the escalating costs of an expensive college education
before thinking about that extra child. The fundamental, still
un-bridged, gap between North and South in matters pertaining to
population is that what people in the industrialized world see as a
problem of `too many people' is seen by those in the developing
countries as the problem of `too much poverty.' The most vivid
exemplars of this persistent chasm remains the following (still
relevant) quotes from Paul Ehrlich and Mahmood Mamdani:
One stinking hot night in Delhi. as we crawled through the city [in a
taxi], we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over
100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive
with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People
visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through
the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People
clinging to busses. People herding animals. People, people, people,
people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the
dust, noise, heat, and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect.
Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly,
frightened. since that night I've known the feel of overpopulation.
(Ehrlich 1968: 15).
At the 1974 World Population Conference, held at Bucharest, the South
rallied under the twin slogans: `Development is the best contraceptive'
and `Take care of the people and the population will take care of
itself'. Ten years later, at the 1984 International Conference on
Population, held at Mexico City, the United States took a U-turn on its
earlier position, and argued that population growth was in fact a
"neutral phenomenon." In what was essentially a critique of its own
earlier policies, the US proclaimed that there had been a "demographic
over-reaction" in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of "economic statism"
in the developing countries and "an outbreak of anti-intellectualism" in
the West. The US proclamation that it sought "an opportunity to
strengthen the international consensus on the interrelationship between
economic development and population" should have thrilled the South. It
did not. See Finkle & Crane (1975 & 1985), Johnson (1987).
The fact is that a hot summer night on Broadway in New York or Picadilly
Circus in London would put Ehrlich in the midst of a far larger crowd.
Yet such an experience would not spur him to comment with grave concern
about `overpopulation.' On the other hand, with a little more concern
and a little less fear he would have realized that what disturbed him
about the crowd in Delhi was not its numbers, but its `quality'-that is,
its poverty. To talk, as Ehrlich does, of `overpopulation' is to say to
people: you are poor because you are too many. People are not poor
because they have large families. Quite the contrary: they have large
families because they are poor. (Mamdani 1972: 14).
The difference between the South's continuing insistence on development
being the best contraceptive and the US's Mexico City position that
`sound economic policies' were the best contraceptive is subtle but
profound. The South's call, at least in theory, has been for
development at large, an improvement in the quality of life, an
expansion of economic options available to poor; the US view at Mexico,
on the other hand, was a political tactic, an ideological call for "a
market economy. [which would] encourage a vital private sector."
In short, the South had been calling for development,
the US was trying to push a particular brand of economics. At the 1994
Cairo conference, the US position reverted back to its earlier
pro-population control agenda. The South's insistence on a development
agenda, however, remained intact and has influenced the ICPD documents,
most notably in the changed nomenclature of the conference itself-the
fact that Cairo was not a conference on population alone but one on
population and development is itself indicative of the enduring
importance that the South has placed on framing the population question
within a larger developmental agenda. See Najam (1994), ICPD (1994).
Having said the above, the dilemma posed by Keyfitz (1991: 39-40) is one
that planners all over the South are wrestling with: "population growth
can prevent the development that would slow population growth"; the
question is how to break the circular chain of "poverty-many
children-poverty." The scholarly debate on the subject remains
inconclusive. From the point of view of the developing countries,
however, the case for development being a good (although not the only)
contraceptive is still supported more robustly by the evidence than the
case for contraception being a good development strategy.
It is the South's insistence that development is the most effective
check for rapid population growth and the South's fear that in their
zeal to focus on population (and the environment) the donor nations of
the industrialized world will divert resources from development
assistance to population programs, that raises their concerns about
additionality. In raising this point, the South articulates its
skepticism about the motivations behind the North's concern for
population growth and also illustrates its preference for developmental,
as opposed to contraceptive, solutions. What it is seeking here is a
reassurance that international priority for population (or environment)
policies will not come at the cost of domestic priorities for economic
This concern had arguably subsided during the 1980s. Since the US
policy reversal at Mexico meant that population was no longer the
priority for the major international donor, a concern about
additionality on the part of the recipient became moot. However, the
end of the cold war has rekindled the fears as was evident at both
UNCED, 1992 and ICPD, 1994. A world without superpower antagonisms is
also a world with very different perspectives on `development
assistance'. Coinciding with a global economic recession, massive debt
accumulations, trade imbalances, and a new negative flow of resources,
this gives three signals to the South:
1-the size of the (`aid') pie is getting smaller, not bigger;
At Cairo, the former Soviet bloc economies in transition were able to
make a strong claim that along with the developing countries they too
should be beneficiaries to international economic assistance including
that earmarked for population activities (ICPD 1994). In the follow-up
debate in the UN General Assembly, many Southern delegates stressed the
facts that a) under the Cairo plan the bulk of actual implementation is
to be done by the developing countries, b) that this would require vast
amounts of resources that must be provided by the international
community, and c) that it was important that the developed countries not
only provide these resources expeditiously but that they do so without
diverting funds from existing programs of development assistance (ENB
1994). In short, additionality continues to remain a major defining
concern in the South's position. If anything, the threat of the North's
neo-Malthusian enthusiasm diverting funds from larger development goals
to narrower contraceptive ones is now compounded by the fear that even
those meager funds will be diverted to economies in transition rather
than the South.
2-there are more claimants (former Soviet bloc nations) to the pie; and
3-in a uni-polar world, major donors have rapidly diminishing
political/strategic use for their support.
Finally, there is the issue of whether the South is being hypocritical
in vehemently opposing population policies internationally while
actively pursuing them domestically, or whether it is merely
`blackmailing' the North for more development assistance? The answer,
on both counts, is "No." An explanation of the South's behavior can be
found in the paramount importance that all states, and particularly the
weak states of the South, place on sovereignty.
Sovereignty is an artifact not merely of land controlled, but of people
represented. To relinquish control over people, and how people make
their most intimate decisions, is to relinquish control over state
sovereignty; no nation-South or North-is yet ready to do so. Developing
countries see no contradiction in supporting massive population programs
domestically and resisting population policies internationally. In the
first they are responding to what they believe to be an important local
problem. In the second, they are resisting what they consider to be
external interference in how they run their own affairs. Krasner (1985:
277) explains the point:
An explicit theme of many Third World arguments, and one that explains
why even developing countries with ambitious domestic programs have
rejected efforts to generate international principles and norms in the
population area is that such norms would encroach on state sovereignty.
Population control involves changing the behavior of individuals. Some
governments support such programs; other reject them; many are
indifferent. But LDCs [less developed countries], which rely heavily on
de jure sovereign powers, do not want there prerogatives to be
constrained by new international antinatalists norms and principles.
This has been obvious to the South, and to perceptive observers in the
North, from the very beginning. For example, just before Bucharest,
French demographer Alfred Sauvy pointed out:
...at Bucharest, a world population plan of action will be proposed that
will take aim, whatever may be said to disguise it, at the sovereignty
of nations. (Quoted in Demeny 1985: 99).
The same could be said of the Cairo Program of Action.
Another way to understand the South's behavior in supporting domestic
population policies but opposing international ones is to use the
framework advocated by Amalric & Banuri (1993) which views the
population problem as not one, but three separate issues. At the local
level, they argue, the central aspect revolves around the health of the
mother and the children and the resource problems of the commons; at the
national level it turns around the links between population growth and
(economic) development, with particular focus on the consequences for
capital formulation, employment, and the capacity of the government to
purvey social services; at the international level the growing focus is
on the links between population growth and global environmental
degradation. In essence, the South rejects (and has consistently
rejected) the international debate and its concomitant causal linkage
between population growth and environmental degradation. It has
concentrated, till now, on the national level where the emphasis is on
economic issues and has only begun, in the wake of ICPD, to focus on the
local level. At both these levels, the legitimate role for the
international community is that of providing assistance, not policy
For Southern states, viewing the population debate largely from the
national level, sovereignty becomes the premier focus. As developing
country delegates at ICPD and the follow-up session of the UN General
Assembly stressed repeatedly, the implementation of population policies
remains a sovereign right of nation states and there is no prospect of
anything changing that in the foreseeable future (ICPD 1994; ENB 1994).
Is the South against population policies?
The danger in the South's arguments is that they can be too easily
misconstrued into implying that the developing nations are `against'
population policy per se. However, as the evidence of population
programs within the South demonstrate, this is not the case.
Importantly, there is the underlying argument that runs through the
entire discourse: slowing the rate of population growth is ultimately
good for the developing countries themselves. This, more than any
pressure from the international community, is why so many developing
countries operate large population programs, and between them spend more
on population than all international assistance combined. Commenting
upon the seemingly confrontational stance taken by the South at the 1974
World Population Conference, Finkle & Crane (1975: 109) had pointed out
that "the developing nations will not turn away from their demographic
dilemmas merely to spite the West." That statement is still valid. The
issue, for the South, is not whether to control population, but why and
In its report The Challenge to the South, the South Commission (1990:
213) stressed that "the containment of the population explosion. is to
be sought through development in the South and through a fairer
distribution of income." However, it added that "while family planning
measures are vitally necessary, they are more effective as economic
security and living standards improve. Poverty must be eradicated, for
only then will it be possible to create the conditions in which people
are more likely to see virtue in smaller families" (emphasis added).
Writing in 1972, Mahbub-ul-Haq (83; 134) made an eloquent case for the
The importance of the population problem is generally recognized in the
developing countries but these countries often get impatient with the
virtuous lectures that the rich nations try to give them on this
subject. They feel that the ever rising level of affluence in the rich
nations place a far greater pressure on the world resources than the
increase in population in the poor lands and that it is hypocritical of
the industrialized world to be so concerned about the physical limits of
this planet when it is so unwilling to do anything serious about the
present maldistribution of world income and resources. They know that
the problem has to be solved, they are aware that it cannot be solved
quickly, and they are suspicious that the pressure that is sometimes
exerted on them by the developed nations to take their population
problem seriously merely serves to ease the collective conscience of the
developed world. The sure solution to the problem of population is to
be found in the solution to the problem of poverty.
Two decades later, the South's case essentially remains the same, as
this more recent excerpt from Mahbub-ul-Haq (1994: 5) testifies:
Population growth is a developmental issue, not a clinical problem. No
one will deny today that top priority must be given to reducing high
rates of population growth in the developing world. The differences are
on strategies, not on objectives. Family planning must be regarded as
an integral part of the new models of sustainable human development.
Divorced from such development models, and pursued as
condom-distribution programs with a single-minded zeal to meet "unmet
demand," they will fail... We cannot slip a condom on poverty.
The South at Cairo
The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held
at Cairo from September 5-13, 1994, is being hailed as "one of the best
publicized-and most successful-international conferences ever held"
(Freeman 1994: 7). Dr. Nafis Sadik, UNFPA executive director and ICPD
secretary general, considers the Program of Action adopted by the
conference to be a "quantum leap" (Sadik 1994: 3). Despite
controversies about reproductive health and abortion and the fact that
as many as 18 delegations recorded reservations to the final
document,(8) Cairo was a far more dormant gathering than preceding
conferences at Bucharest (1974) and Mexico City (1984). However, beyond
the fact that no unexpected controversies or fault-lines emerged at
Cairo, as they had at Bucharest and Mexico City,(9) there was little in
the ICPD process or products that was unanticipated (see Najam 1994).
In a post-Cairo statement, Ambassador Nicolaas H. Biegman (1994: 15) of
the Netherlands has opined that "there was no `Southern' and no
`Northern' approach [at Cairo], and this made the Conference such an
outstanding exception in the ever-lengthening series of big UN
gatherings." The diplomatic appropriateness of such sentiments aside, a
careful analysis of the concerns expressed by developing country
delegates during the ICPD process demonstrates that not only was their a
distinct `Southern' approach at Cairo, but it was consistent with the
South's historically persistent approach to population, environment and
development as already outlined in this study.
For example, in its position statement to the third ICPD preparatory
committee meeting, the Group of 77 and China (the representative caucus
of over 130 developing countries in the UN system) laid out the basis of
the South's essential position in terms no different from those used at
Bucharest and Mexico City (G77 1994):
The link between economic growth and population issues cannot be taken
up solely from the technical standpoint, restricted to demographic
aspects. This is in fact the major political challenge of our time..
The right to development as a fundamental human right has to be
unequivocally [sic] as a principle enshrined in this context.
Even more illustrative are the statements made by developing states
during the discussion on ICPD follow-up and implementation (17-18
November 1994) during 49th session of the UN General Assembly (ENB
1994). This is where states had the opportunity to highlight the issues
and concerns most important to them.(10) Each of the five Southern
concerns identified above were forcefully presented by developing
country delegates. For example, discussing the importance of
environmental issues, and voicing concerns about responsibility and
efficiency, the delegate from Antigua and Barbuda (speaking on behalf of
the Caribbean Economic Community and Suriname) made it a point to
explicitly insist that the industrialized countries "must cease and
desist from harmful production, wasteful consumption and deadly disposal
The `development as a powerful contraceptive'-or efficacy-argument was
imbedded within the very name of the Cairo meeting and is ubiquitous
throughout the Program of Action (ICPD 1994). More specifically, during
the General Assembly debate, the ambassador from Malta pointed out that
a selective approach, which emphasizes the implementation of a
restrictive demographic orientation and sacrifices the developmental
perspective, would be detrimental to the success of the Program of
Action; Egypt added that in order to implement ICPD decisions the focus
of the UN Population Commission should shift from demography to
development; Bangladesh summed the view of the South succinctly by
simply stating that "the goals of the ICPD will fall short if poverty is
not eradicated." See ENB (1994).
On additionality, the only assurance the South was able to get was in
the objective of "increas[ing] the commitment to, and the stability of,
international financial assistance in the field of population and
development by diversifying the sources of contributions, while striving
to avoid as far as possible a reduction in the resources for other
development areas" (ICPD 1994: para 14.10b, emphasis added). However,
the conference also recognized the claim of former Soviet bloc countries
to population and development related funds.(12) The urgency of
diminishing international funds and increasing claimants was not lost on
developing countries who repeatedly stressed the importance of the North
fulfilling its financial commitments. Zimbabwe explicitly raised the
additionality concern by stressing that the international community must
provide "new and additional" financial resources to ensure adequate
implementation; China repeated the sentiment and added the concern about
conditionality, stating that no country should attach any conditions to
its donations made in the field of population and development. See ENB
Finally, sovereignty gained a new salience at Cairo as existing concerns
about political sovereignty were joined by new concerns about cultural
and religious sovereignty which were brought to fore by the discussion
on abortion and reproductive rights. In fact, all the states who
expressed reservations on the final document did so around some
formulation of the sovereignty argument. Many, amongst those who did
not register reservations, did make a point of explicitly clarifying
that in their interpretation of the ICPD decisions no element of
sovereignty-at any level-had been ceded by states, who remain solely
responsible for deciding which population and development policies best
suit their particular social, cultural, developmental, and religious
conditions. Particularly strong statements in this regards were made by
Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria-all three amongst the ten most populated
countries in the world. See ENB (1994).
The Cairo conference-like its predecessors-was an important step in the
continuing evolution of the `population question' rather than being the
resolution of the `population problem.' This was especially true with
the ICPD's strong focus on social development and women's rights. It is
also true about the abiding concerns of the developing countries about
population-environment-development issues. Even though the substance of
the concerns has endured-and, hence, the continuing North-South debate
on the subject-the nuances therein have evolved.
On responsibility and efficiency the South's arguments are less
contested today even though there is no indication of policy change on
consumption patterns in the North. On efficacy, the South's argument
remains that `development is the best contraceptive' although
development is now more broadly defined, encompassing human and
social-as opposed to the merely economic-dimensions. On additionality,
new threats have begun to emerge around the double threat of a
diminishing pool of available resources and new claimants to its
bounty.(13) On sovereignty, the earlier concerns have remained
unchanged and been added to by new concerns about cultural and religious
sovereignty as international policy attempts to move into the more
intimate domains of issues such as reproductive health and abortion.
In sum, important differences persist between the North's and South's
perception of the population-environment-development nexus. From the
South's perspective, the ideal international policies would be those:
While parts of a few of these conditions are already being met, at least
in the rhetoric, the entirety of this package of principles is unlikely
to be accepted. Specifically, a grand North-South bargain that might
exchange population control policies in the South for consumption
control policies in the North was never on the cards for Cairo, and
remains unlikely in the foreseeable future. Northern consumers and
politicians-even Northern environmental groups-are unlikely to support
such policies; also, such proposals will find little enthusiasm amongst
Southern elites. Further, the South's position is weak because it is
likely to continue its population policies even if no such deal is
struck, while the North has limited domestic pressure (or interest) and
no international incentive to pursue unilateral consumption control
where international assistance is built, not on the implicit rationale
of placing the responsibility for environmental degradation on the
`mounting multitudes', but on sharing the responsibility for managing a
threatened planet (responsibility);
where population control measures in the South are complemented with
equally comprehensive consumption control measures in the North
where the focus of population policy is not as much on providing
people with the means to contracept (i.e., the hardware: family
planning) as with reasons to contracept (i.e., the software: human and
social development) (efficacy);
where increased international support is provided as assistance, not
as conditionality, and does not detract resources from other
developmental priorities (additionality); and
where international population policy implies no more than providing
assistance for domestic programs, designed and carried out entirely
according to national priorities, with no implicit or explicit
interference in policy design or implementation (sovereignty).
Moreover, despite the rhetoric of Cairo, a massive transfer of resources
from North to South for broadly defined development is also unlikely;
whatever transfers will be made are likely to be narrowly directed at
contraceptive and family planning-like activities. A conservative
political shift and the continuing economic problems in the
North-combined with public disdain for international assistance and the
diminishing geostrategic importance of the South-is likely to further
constrain the actual amounts of any North-South resource transfer.
While this prognosis may seem pessimistic, it is no more than a
realistic view of the future given past experience and present
conditions. That international policy action on population is unlikely
does not, however, mean that all international efforts in the field of
population, environment and development are futile. The focus, however,
will have to shift from attempting to `create' international population
policies to `supporting' domestic population policies. The first is
unwise and prone to conflict because at the individual level it impinges
upon the most intimate of personal decisions and at the national level
it challenges fundamental state sovereignty. The later, however, is an
advisable-and even efficient-course of action because nearly all
countries with high population growth rates are already pursuing strong
domestic population programs which provide the international community
opportunity to demonstrate their support for them.
Having said the above, there should be no illusion about this being an
`easy' strategy. Few in the South really believe that such an attitude
is forthcoming. There is no indication whatsoever that the North is
ready to adopt a supportive but hands-off and non-interference policy as
far as its foreign assistance dollars are concerned. Despite all the
talk about national sovereignty or the rights of communities and
individuals, international donors are no more prepared to stop
interfering in the decisions of recipient states than states are
prepared to do so with communities and individuals. Until an
international climate of such mutual trust and confidence is
established, a minimum first step for both North and South would be to
try to understand, even where they do not agree with, the concerns of
the other. In trying to foster such understanding, this paper has
attempted not as much to defend the South's position as to present its
persistent concerns and explain the rationale-from the South's
viewpoint-behind these concerns.
Acknowledgments: I first developed many of the arguments in this paper
while doing research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge,
Mass. These have since been refined, reframed, and expanded. I have
benefited from comments on earlier versions from, and/or my discussions
with, Dr. Tariq Banuri (Sustainable Development Policy Institute,
Pakistan), Dr. Michael Brower (then, Union of Concerned Scientists),
Prof. Robert O. Keohane (Harvard Center for International Affairs), Dr.
Jesse C. Ribot (Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies),
and Prof. Lawrence E. Susskind (Department of Urban Studies and
Planning, M.I.T.). This, however, does not imply that they necessarily
share all the views expressed here. I have also benefited greatly from
comments by anonymous reviewers.
1 - Nor is the call for making population control an
explicitly stated goal of governance and policy a new development. The
ancient Greeks certainly did not view the arrival of every child simply
as a blessing. Hesiod argued that one son was enough. Plato and
Aristotle envisaged the state's policing marriage and eugenically
eliminating excess and unfit children. By the same token, as many
examples can be cited of explicit pronatalist policies being advocated
both by scholars and governments for a whole variety of reasons. See
2 - Meadows et al. (1992) remind their readers that there is little
reason to celebrate if the predictions of their earlier work, The Limits
to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), have not yet materialized. They argue
that the thresholds of resource limits are nearer today, and are now
more likely to collapse suddenly. Paul Ehrlich (with Anne H. Ehrlich
1990) defends the alarmist predictions of his earlier work, The
Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968), with similar arguments. The essential
case for not becoming complacent merely because humanity has, till now,
demonstrated remarkable adeptness in the face of ever-rising populations
is made by Nathan Keyfitz (1991: 43) who stresses that "simply supposing
that relations among past values of the variables will hold in the
future can give absurd results." Keyfitz (1991: 40) also points out
that "an ecological crisis can come suddenly, like a point of
singularity, when the underlying curves are smooth."
3 - Julian Simon (1981) considers population to be "the ultimate
resource." This argument, too, boasts of an ancient lineage. In 59
B.C. Julius Caesar legislated land allotments to fathers of three or
more children, while Roman Emperor Augustus promulgated laws in 18 B.C.
and 9 A.D. which pressured widows to remarry and punished celibacy and
childlessness. See McLaren (1990).
4 - For the purpose of this discussion we will consider the `South' to
be a single (though not monolithic) entity representing the developing
countries. This paper uses the term `South' (which is a political
concept) in lieu of terms like `Third World' or the `Developing World'
(which have generally been construed as economic concepts). For more on
the concept of the `South,' see Najam (1993a).
5 - In its various formulations, this approach has been advocated as the
theoretical synthesis of the population-environment linkage (UNFPA 1991;
Harrison 1992) and applied empirically to specific environmental
questions (Myers 1990; Bongaarts 1992). Although the I=PAT approach is
currently the most widely held view on the subject, it is not
necessarily the only one. Another approach is advocated by Shaw (1989 &
1992) which argues that to date rapid population growth does not qualify
as an ultimate cause of global environmental degradation, rather it is a
proximate factor and that distortionary social, economic, and political
factors are, in fact, the ultimate causes.
6 - For one thing it tells us nothing about the direction of the
relationship between technology (T) and the environmental impact (I) or
that between A and I. Also, if the South is correct in the importance
of development as a contraceptive then a drop in P may be difficult
without a corresponding rise in A and T, and is likely to leave I little
changed. For a commentary on the limitations of the I=PAT identity see
Shaw (1992) and Amalric & Banuri (1993).
7 - Dr. Mahbub-ul-Haq is currently chief author of the UN Development
Program's annual Human Development Reports. He has remained one of the
leading representative intellectual leaders of the South for the last 25
years, and is therefore a creditable exemplar of the South's views on
8 - Reservations to the final documents were recorded by Afghanistan,
Argentina, Brunei, Djibouti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Holy See, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Malta,
Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The Holy
See which had refused to join the consensus at the 1974 and 1984
population conferences, announced that it was joining the Cairo
consensus "in an incomplete, partial manner." It supported the emphases
on linking population and development, on the protection of the family
and on empowering women through improved access to education and health
care, but stated that the texts of other chapters had implications it
could not support. Although the partial consensus accepted by the Holy
See is regarded by some as an important achievement of ICPD it should be
noted that the number of states officially recording reservations at
Cairo was higher than at Bucharest and Mexico City.
9 - At Bucharest the South, led by China, had surprised the North by the
intensity of its concerns about the proposed Plan of Action and forced
it to be substantively redrafted; at Mexico City it was the United
States that surprised conference organizers by changing its position at
the last minute and proposing that population was a "neutral phenomenon"
(see Finkle & Crane 1975 & 1985; Johnson 1987).
10 - By necessity, UN conferences cover a wide range of issues and
incorporate a wider range of interests. All too often, the result is
ambiguous language delicately crafted to accommodate all interests and
all parties. However, the post-conference General Assembly debate (and
the conference plenary debates) provide state representatives the
opportunity to highlight the concerns and interests most important to
them. It is instructive to note that the issue of abortion which was
seen by so many as the main highlight of ICPD, thanks to the Vatican
delegation and the Western media, was far less prominent when nations
recounted issues of the greatest interest to them at the General
Assembly. See ENB (1994).
11 - The terminology in the Cairo Program of Action is much diluted and
crafted to be acceptable to both North and South: "Demographic factors,
combined with poverty and lack of access to resources in some areas, and
excessive consumption and wasteful production patters in others, cause
or exacerbate problems of environmental degradation and resource
depletion and thus inhibit sustainable development" (ICPD 1994: para
3.25). Note the use of `demographic factors' as opposed to `population
growth'; as at UNCED this choice reflects a delicate balance. It
accommodates the South's insistence that the population variable of
importance to the environment is distribution with respect to natural
resources rather than sheer numbers. More importantly, the paragraph
makes clear the South's view that population becomes a causal factor in
terms of environmental degradation only in relation to poverty on the
one hand and over-consumption on the other.
12 - In Chapter 14 (on `International Cooperation') the ICPD Program of
Action defines one of its objective as "to increase substantially the
availability of international financial assistance. [to] developing
countries and countries with economies in transition" (ICPD 1994: para
14.10a, emphasis added). However, the South was able to have it stated
that "countries with economies in transition should receive temporary
assistance for population and development activities" (ICPD 1994: para
13 - It is likely that the majority won by the Republican party in
recent elections to the US Congress will exacerbate this concern. With
the Republicans being traditionally unsympathetic to global institutions
and initiatives it is being projected that US funding for ICPD
implementation would be one of the casualties (Shepard 1994). If so,
then the international assistance pie available to the South would
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