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Breaking the ‘Silence’ on Global Population Issues

Repeated pleas for more family planning services and an enlightened approach to population issues were made at an event to mark World Population Day. Distinguished academics spoke about the failure of the international community, and called for maternal and child health to be recognised as paramount at the symposium in London. They emphasised the need to break the ‘silence’ on population matters as their impact on health and the environment cannot be ignored, especially as the world’s growing population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. The speakers at the meeting on 12 July said family planning was about promoting human rights and sustainability, and they widely dismissed the phrase population control.
Professor Andy Haines, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, introduced the interrelated and challenging issues at the event held at his institution. He explained how population growth is a ‘major contributor’ to environmental concerns, including climate change and food security.
Family planning
Haines also said the international community has failed to provide adequate family planning as nearly 25% of women in sub-Saharan Africa have an unmet need for such services. Professor John Cleland, of LSHTM, reiterated this criticism, saying that the neglect of family planning over the last 15 years has been a ‘tragedy.’ He said family planning now needs a champion, and that many hope Bill Gates will fulfil such a role. Cleland described how family planning is unique among interventions because of its array of potential benefits, including progress towards all of the Millennium Development Goals.
Such widespread advantages were also mentioned by Professor Oona Campbell, of LSHTM. Family planning is hailed as a cost-effective investment, and she referred to research which shows that every US$1 spent on family planning in sub-Saharan Africa is credited with saving US$2-6 in other areas, including education and sanitation. Campbell also explained how contraceptives can avoid situations often associated with poor health: pregnancies among the very young or old, large families where food and other resources are in short supply, short birth intervals, and unsafe abortions.
Population growth in Africa
Alex Ezeh, of the African Population Studies and Health Research Centre, Nairobi, focused on the population projections, and their implications, for Africa. He referred to figures that show the continent’s population will increase from about one billion now to nearly two billion by 2050. This means Africa will account for 43% of world population growth over this period. Ezeh highlighted how the continent is the lowest net producer of carbon emissions, yet faces the greatest impact from climate change, including water supply problems likely to affect between 75-250 million Africans by 2020. He said family planning investments until the 1990s have been disrupted by the diversion of funds to respond to HIV/AIDS, and he called for better infrastructure to deliver family planning services.
Changing the debate
The urgency of exploring population issues and moving beyond outdated debates was stressed by many of the speakers. Karen Newman, of the Population and Sustainability Network, said: ‘We have allowed ourselves to become more population illiterate than is helpful. How useful is the silence on population?’ Professor Malcolm Potts, of the University of Berkeley, added: ‘We are talking about human rights; we are not talking about population control.’ Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, Nigeria’s Minister of Health until May this year, emphasised the need to engage parliamentarians in these debates, integrate family planning into wider policies, and invest in women’s education and rights as the only way to secure sustainability.

Population Symposium Report

By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC