The Multinational Monitor


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Population Conference Ignored Key Issues

On August 6, 1984, over 1500 delegates, journalists and dignitaries crowded into the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attend the opening session of the 1984 UN Population Conference.

For the next 10 days, Mexico City played host to an elaborate production by and for an international elite. Ushered by chartered buses from five-star hotels to lavish receptions, conference participants-including members of the press-were well insulated from the realities of the city. Delegates appeared to have more in common with each other than with their constituencies. Yet critical examination of the meeting has been largely missing in press reports.

There is an intimate connection between treatment of the participants and treatment of the issues. That participants were exposed only to the upper echelons of Mexican society and that the conference discussion centered on the ideas of a single world class of administrators raises questions about the international "consensus" which became the watchword of the Mexico meeting.

Ten years ago, the UN Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania, concluded that poverty and not numbers of people was the source of the Third World's problems.

Today, it appears that the pendulum has swung back toward population control. But whether the emphasis is on family planning or economic development, or whether a consensus has been reached that combines the two approaches, is a moot point. The framing of the entire population question is inadequate.

One of the least explored vestiges of 19th-century imperialism is the industrialized world's inability to look at itself. With the exception of disarmament, conference delegates failed to examine how consumption patterns in the developed countries perpetuate global inequality. Richer nations were addressed in their capacity as contributors to funds, and not as contributors to problems.

And yet, the average citizen of the industrialized world requires a resource base 20 times greater than that which sustains the average citizen of a Third World country. As pointed out by Mexican women's groups demonstrating outside of the conference hall, a slight increase in the population of the world's richest regions would create far more serious pressure on the world's resources than even a rapid upsurge in the population of the Third World. Yet no questions were raised when the West German delegation announced its intention to encourage German couples to have more children.

Another problem with the UN framework is that it fails to examine the role of US and European multinational corporations in family planning programs. Family planning should be an important tool in helping women establish control over their bodies. In the past, unregulated corporate activity in this field has led to problems that seriously undermine longterm women's health objectives.

Contraceptive research and development is largely in the hands of corporations and population control research groups like the Population Council, largely funded by the U.S. government. The result has been to produce a limited range of often dangerous or insufficiently tested products, including the Dalkon Shield and injectables such as Depo-Provera. When women are forced to choose between a risky and a very risky alternative, freedom of choice becomes an empty concept.

Furthermore, many countries do not have drug regulatory agencies equipped to inform women about the pros and cons of different contraceptives. The US delegation's emphasis on free markets legitimizes a situation in which multinational corporations determine not only the range of drugs produced, but also the information available about them.

Finally, a majority of corporate funds are spent on female-not on male-contraceptive research. This emphasis perpetuates the notion that it is the woman who must bear the responsibility and the risks of family planning. In this sense, the kind of contraceptive technology currently available does nothing to alter social relations between men and women.

For example one of the most often cited advantages of Depo-Provera is that a woman can use it without her husband's knowledge. This means that both the husband's traditional authority over his wife and his aloofness from the family planning process go unchallenged.

How is it that these issues were not dealt with at the conference?

Part of the responsibility may lie with the press. Despite the presence of over 700 journalists, coverage of the international meeting was largely cautious and uncritical. Conference press rooms were filled with reporters reformulating news stories straight out of press releases. Press conference time was mostly taken up by reporters clarifying points rather than challenging premises.

This unquestioning attitude is not coincidental. One of Rafael Salas's unique contributions as secretary-general of the conference has been to make sure that the press received special attention. Fed a diet of shrimp, wine and information packets, reporters walked an increasingly fine line between intimate observation and collaboration. For all the discussion that took place during the UN conference, neither the participants nor the press tackled the fundamental issues underlying the "population problem." The challenge is now before us. We need a new way to look at global interdependence. Population is not solely a problem of the Third World. We must examine the "First World's" role in generating the crisis. Until we redefine the problem, there will be no workable solution. w

- Krystyna von Henneberg and Amy Goodman
This article originally appeared in
The Boston Globe.

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