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More than just goodwill

Dirk Jena
Tuesday, April 03, 2012

EVER wondered why United Nations system agencies like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) come into your island nations and support projects that are claimed will improve your lives?

We cannot speak for the others and indeed there are different organisational processes and approaches through which we attempt to implement our agendas of development but for us, we believe that it is more than mere goodwill shown by about 180 countries when they signed off on the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, in Cairo.

For us, this effectively means we are here on the invitation of your governments รน so we assist in development, always with respect to your sovereignty. We engage and never impose.

UNFPA was established in 1967 by the United Nations Secretary-General then, U Thant after calls from member states for 'assistance in the field of population', at a time that there existed considerable concern regarding the ever faster growing world population.

It was the time of the Club of Rome and of the well-known steep graph showing an exponential growth in population numbers.

For its population and development mandate, the UNFPA was guided by consensus from the conferences of 1974 (Bucharest), 1984 (Mexico) and 1994 (Cairo). The abbreviation stands for its original name of United Nations Population Fund for Population Activities, somewhat obscuring its original mandate of taking a close look at how human numbers impact human needs.

Following the International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1994, its original name changed to United Nations Population Fund, without change in abbreviation.

While population-related development work used to be closely associated with its demographic numbers and a population doubling time of 25 years, Cairo is significant in that the world community agreed upon a fundamental shift from numbers to rights: Cairo marked the centralisation of the individual, the person and therefore the people, into development agendas.

Cairo, was together with the many other UN world conferences that convened in the 90s, an expression of the ideals to which the world community wished to associate themselves with in order to contribute to humanity. The 15 principles on which the 20-year Programme of Action (PoA) is based are undeniably comprehensive.

In reverse order, they span the entire development spectrum ranging from narrowing the imbalances in sustained economic growth to the rights of indigenous people, migrants and children, right to education, the family as basic unit of society, the rights of deciding freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of children, eradication of poverty, elimination of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, improve the quality of life of all people, gender equality and equity, the inalienable right to development without compromising the ability of future generations, to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature, to all being born free and equal in dignity and rights.

It shows that Cairo was itself truly inspired by the Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

It shows that the declarations of the 90s were unique in their inclusiveness as also the Rio Declaration in its Principle 8 states that States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

Why then is it now in the Rio+20 review process so difficult to ensure that population dynamics remain an important factor in achieving sustainable development?

Closing the ICPD, Dr Nafis Sadik, the then ICPD Secretary-General and UNFPA Executive Director said that the ICPD PoA represented "a quantum leap to a higher state of energy". The then Egyptian Population Minister at the time, Professor Dr Maher Mahran was equally enthusiastic describing the 1994 ICPD shift in focus "a turning point for humanity".

The ICPD PoA, which contributed to the development of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, marked the strongest articulation ever from a UN meeting that acknowledged partnership with civil society, including the private sector.

How then has ICPD impacted the world, you may ask. We know that millions of lives have been saved over the past 18 years because of policies and services inspired by the PoA. Where family planning is available, we see more lives saved, poverty decreased, and more empowered women. The link between better access to family planning services and better educational opportunities for young girls, and more roles for women in the paid labour force is unquestionable. Fewer maternal deaths occur; unmet need for contraception is satisfied and prenatal and postnatal care is accessible, etc. Such trends empower us as development workers to continue, especially when ones' mandate is perhaps the most sensitive of all UN mandates.

It's likely that the conventional economics thrive by a sustained population growth and that its related dynamics favour development interventions that increase rather than question growth in production and consumption. UNFPA has also continued pointing to the importance of understanding and addressing population dynamics such as migration to towns and the green pastures of booming economies, the unprecedented high proportion of youth and an increasing dependency of the oldest old. But we have to acknowledge that there is a lot more to be done yet.

The Pacific can be proud that its delegation in Cairo "managed to assert a high profile and articulated effectively the particular population and development realities and challenges of the island nations" as noted by Stephen Chee, who was the UNFPA Pacific country team leader then.

The implementation of UNFPA's PoA in the region has been on both national and regional level, and its five-yearly reviews has helped us to understand that something needs to be done about repositioning family planning, youth and women in a Pacific-appropriate manner and analysing of data for Pacific-proper development planning and policy formulation such as assistance in the 3rd generation national population policy development in Tuvalu and Vanuatu, and the national ageing policy in Fiji.

We have been attempting different approaches to maintain effectiveness. Apart from working with governments through its Ministry of Health, we have been exploring the tripartite model of working with chiefs and the churches as well, acknowledging the dual realities of our Pacific peoples who juggle the modern man and a world governed mostly by faith and tradition.

Given that the times seem to turn towards the conservative and that the PoA 20-year timetable ends in 2014, the UN General Assembly has given its blessings for ICPD PoA and its key actions to continue beyond 2014. But before that, the UNFPA will be working with governments and civil society for an 'assessment'.

We want to know what has and has not worked and to listen to your take on how we can continue to improve lives and safeguard the environment.

It is our intentions to ensure that the ICPD's PoA remains an inspiring framework for the UN Development Agenda Beyond 2015 and we look particularly to young people for innovative steps towards increased effectiveness as we attempt to make things better for your future.

It will be a process that we hope you will all follow and participate in, because everybody should count.

* Dirk Jena is the United Nations

Population Fund Pacific sub-regional

office director and representative.

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