Conferences, International Population

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International conferences have a long history in the affairs of nations, but it was not until a quarter-century after the birth of the United Nations that international conferences began to assume a central role in formulating social policies on a global scale. Since the environmental conference held in Stockholm in 1972, a meeting regarded as highly successful, thematic conferences have become an established mechanism to guide the United Nations and member states in addressing a diverse array of social problems. Participation in these conferences, initially confined to government representatives and technical experts, has increasingly become more open to a broad spectrum of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The Early Years

In the period between World Wars I and II, participants at numerous scientific meetings discussed the perceived dangers inherent in the uneven distribution of world population, and canvassed the possible role for organized migration as a safety valve. The World Population Conference held in Geneva in 1927, though not a League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations) meeting, was pivotal in moving the League toward engaging with population questions. The conference was organized by Margaret Sanger, who recognized that scientific attention and the mantle of the League of Nations could legitimize "overpopulation" as a subject for discussion in international forums. Sanger invited eminent scientists, but found that their acceptance was conditional on there being no propagandizing for Malthusian ideas or birth control; indeed, she was led to remove her name from the official documentation.

The League was officially unable to accept Sanger's invitation to be represented as an institution, but interested staff were permitted to attend in their personal capacities and the International Labour Office displayed keen interest. An outcome of the meeting was the creation of the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (IUSIPP), a non-governmental organization comprised mainly of demographers and others with a strong interest in population issues. IUSIPP convened three meetings in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II, meetings marred by Franco-German rivalry and the efforts of Nazi Germany to legitimize its anti-Semitism and demands for lebensraum.

The Scientific Conferences

Birth control remained a sensitive topic in the early years of the United Nations, although there was some support from influential actors and agencies within the U.N. system to move the issue cautiously forward. The United Nations Population Commission sponsored two world population conferences–in Rome in 1954 and Belgrade in 1965–devoted to scientific and technical subjects and structured around research on demographic trends and methods. They were jointly convened with the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP, the successor to IUSIPP) and interested U.N. Specialized Agencies. The conference participants were invited as individual experts rather than as representatives of governments, and the meetings were not authorized to approve resolutions or make recommendations to governments. Nevertheless, while focusing on research aspects of population issues, the meetings allowed some discussion of family planning programs to take place without arousing controversy.

The Inter-Governmental Conferences

The United Nations, with strong support from the United States as well as from some western European and Asian nations, convened the first of three decennial intergovernmental population conferences at Bucharest in 1974. In this conference, and in its successors in Mexico City (1984) and Cairo (1994), representatives of governments replaced the individual experts of earlier years, a change appropriate for discussion of population policy. The context had changed markedly between 1965 and 1974. A number of countries were now feeling the pressures of rapid population growth, and several Asian countries had long since implemented family planning programs. As early as 1961, the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, later ESCAP) had convened an intergovernmental meeting in New Delhi that had productively discussed population policy. And in 1969, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had been established with the expectation that it would encourage the United Nations and its agencies to become more active in confronting problems of rapid population growth. Significantly, initial support for the creation of UNFPA came from a voluntary contribution from the United States.

The Bucharest and Mexico City conferences provided the occasion for governments to advance their own political and ideological agendas, often at variance from the organizers' plans and expectations. At Bucharest, a large group of Third World states presented a quasi-Marxist analysis: they argued that population problems were really symptoms of imbalances in the world economic system, and strenuously urged the establishment of a more equitable New International Economic Order responsive to the needs of developing nations. They were also distrustful of the Draft Plan of Action that was submitted for the conference's approval as undermining national sovereignty by laying down a global policy to which all countries would be expected to adhere.

Ten years later at Mexico City, the United States government unexpectedly departed from its earlier stance by rejecting the premise that rapid population growth hindered development. In the midst of President Ronald Reagan's campaign for reelection, in what was widely interpreted as a move to solidify the support of the Republican right wing, the head of the American delegation at Mexico City declared that "population growth is, in itself, a neutral phenomenon" and advocated the adoption of market economies as the answer to rapid population growth (United States 1984). Less government interference in the economy, according to this line of reasoning, would foster economic growth and thereby lower fertility. Additionally, in what turned out to be the most contentious part of the Reagan administration's statement at the Conference, the United States articulated its Mexico City Policy–to withhold U.S. government funds from organizations that performed or promoted abortion in foreign countries using money from non-U.S. sources, extending the prohibition on using U.S. funds for abortion that was already in effect.

Despite the political and ideological differences aired on the floor, both the Bucharest and Mexico City conferences concluded by approving, by a near-consensus, documents that were supportive of family planning programs. Characteristic of recommendations emanating from UN conferences, these action programs failed to elicit a greater commitment to broad population policies, and donor contributions ceased to grow in real terms.

Responding to a general dissatisfaction with developing-country governance, the United Nations and its more influential member states sought to engage more fully with non-government organizations as providers of services and watchdogs of government programs. This was a role that NGOs themselves increasingly were demanding, and for which they were already organizing.

Consistent with this perspective, the secretariat for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)–held in Cairo in September 1994–accredited a total of 1,254 NGOs, the largest number being American. Building on the experience of other UN conferences, especially the Conference on the Human Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Cairo secretariat gave NGOs unprecedented access to the conference preparations and proceedings. Already highly organized and supported by several western governments and foundations, the NGOs redefined "population policy," shunning demographic objectives and replacing them with a very broad agenda of women's issues, including women's reproductive and sexual health, gender equality, and women's rights and empowerment. For the first time, the Cairo Programme of Action also included chapters on funding, follow-up activities, and the monitoring of implementation–and allowed for the continued involvement of NGOs. Once the conference was over, the Women's Caucus (organized by NGOs prior to the ICPD) pursued a strategy aimed at ensuring that the Cairo agenda would be endorsed by subsequent UN conferences–notably the Social Summit, the Conference on Human Rights, and the Beijing Conference on Women.

A Retrospective View

With hindsight, the most significant effect of the Cairo conference was the renewed vigor it brought to a somewhat weary field in need of new allies and supporters. While the conference reinvigorated population policy and engendered a high degree of support, especially among women's health groups and feminists, the new dynamism came at a certain cost. At Bucharest and Mexico City, both the ability of individual women to regulate their own fertility and the needs of society to limit population growth were central to the discourse and disagreements. The Cairo process, by contrast, was less concerned with the problems associated with population size and growth. In their place, the Cairo Programme of Action recommended a wide range of reproductive and sexual health services, as well as education, primarily for women and girls. Thus, the turn of the twenty-first century saw two of the great social revolutions of modernity–birth control and women's emancipation–part ways in important respects. It is likely that future international population conferences will recognize these differences and may, of necessity, attempt to bridge them.

See also: Population Organizations: United Nations System; Population Policy; Population Thought, Contemporary; Sanger, Margaret.


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McIntosh, C. Alison, and Jason L. Finkle. 1995. "The Cairo Conference on Population and Development: A New Paradigm?" Population and Development Review 21(2): 223–260.

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C. Alison McIntosh

Jason L. Finkle

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