What Cairo did not discuss

Published: Saturday 15 October 1994

THE Cairo conference turned into yet another example of the governments of rich countries bullying the poor ones into accepting their self-centred perception of how the world's natural resources should be matched with people all over the world. Nobody argues for not keeping the world's population in check; nobody, also, argues that there has to be a reason for such uncontrollable propagation -- namely, the limited supply of natural resources.

The conference which had earlier received its theme, Population and Development, after intense negotiations between the rich and the poor countries at the UN, ended up spending most of its time waffling only about how to control population, not why -- a repeat of what happened at Rio, where the rich countries refused to discuss development issues and focused only on the conservation of the environment.

The Cairo conference also failed to learn from the past -- particularly the lesson that plans and programmes, unless initiated by the people themselves, rarely find wide acceptance. If developing countries were to judge the conference's conclusions by asking about what benefits their people can expect, the answer will be: zilch. Even by stabilising their population or reducing it, the poor are likely to still remain relatively poor, because Cairo did not ensure them a better share of world's natural resources. It failed to touch upon their demand for development -- or sustainable development, to be precise. This means that whatever the world's population, 1 American child will continue to consume as much as 33 Indian children or 422 Ethiopians.

And this is precisely the root of the problem. The rich countries want to reduce the population of the developing countries so that they can continue to enjoy their 75 per cent share of the world's natural resources. On the contrary, the developing countries want the rich to reduce their consumption so that the poor can have better access to these resources.

Cunningly, the rich avoided any discussion on the issue and worked on the warped assumption that population and not consumption leads to environmental degradation. Imagine an extreme hypothetical example described by the US-based International Institute for Culture: if the world's entire human population were confined to an area representing just 1 per cent of the earth's land surface, each family of 5 could make its dwelling on one-third of an acre; the population density of that area would be well lower than that of Boston, Massachusetts, today. Similarly, if the world's population were to survive on an average Indian consumption, global consumption would be tremendously lower that of the present, significantly reducing the strain on the environment.

Further, witness cases like the severe soil depletion and water contamination occurring now in California, a very sparsely populated area. Or in one of the most polluted sites on this planet, Cubatao in Brazil, a zone developed and occupied by multinational industrial and pharmaceutical companies. This also shows that overconsumption in one part of the world in today's global economy can have environmental impacts in other parts. Therefore, to link all environmental problems with the immediate neighbourhood is patently foolish. This is precisely what population experts have been doing, in the process ignoring crucial consumption-environment linkages.

A fair outcome of Cairo should have led both sides to make honest assessments and give in a little. What happened is that only the poor promised while the rich demanded.

This confirms a trend on North-South issues in recent years, where the South is consistently forced to respond to plans and programmes of the North without any space left for the former to talk about its concerns, perceptions and problems.

This worldview that only the North knows what is right for the world is dangerous, since it fails to learn from history which shows that imposing the Northern developmental model in the South has failed in many respects. While providing prosperity to a few, it exponentially increased inequality and misery, while degraded the natural resources of most developing countries.

As far as the developing countries are concerned, the buck stops just short of their borders. The Rio conference, which agreed to a voluminous US $175 billion annual programme for sustainable development, has already been frozen in the political archives by the rich nations who show no interest in implementing it. This makes the Cairo conference a one-sided plan to inform the developing countries on what to do and how to do it without correcting the distortions in the global economy.

India, like other developing countries which have agreed to the agenda set by the Cairo meet, should now prevail upon the rich world at the next session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development to organise a similar meet on restricting consumption by those who have plenty and encourage it by those who have less. Only then will the work started at Cairo will come full circle.

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