CONSIDER THIS: '7 Billion Actions' For 7 Billion People

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By Ernest Corea*

WASHINGTON DC - Baby 7,000,000,000 (Baby 7B) entered the world on Oct. 31, without being told ahead that (s)he would be a member of the human family which confronts great possibilities as well as dangerous pitfalls, almost side-by-side.

That, as Ismail Serageldin, a skilled and prescient communicator, puts it is "the paradox of our times". He was the World Bank's Vice President for Sustainable Development (currently Director of Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina); when he told an Asian Development Bank symposium:

"The 20th century now behind us was a period of phenomenal progress in almost all aspects of human life. And yet, despite the massive advances, the great and beneficial changes, in our 'world of plenty' poverty and hunger persist.

"Over 1 billion people live on less than the local equivalent of a US dollar a day. Over 2.5 billion live on the local equivalent of less than $2 a day. This is hardly a life, and is barely survival.

"The food abundance produced by modern agriculture is not available to all. The earth's fragile natural resources on which we all depend are under siege. The information revolution is considered a metaphor for contemporary life, but the basics of material for literacy – textbooks, pencils and paper - are not available to millions of children who are thus deprived of self-fulfilment.
"Technology has revolutionized medical treatment but some diseases remain rampant. … And the end of the cold war has not established peace on earth. Conflicts are common in many countries, including those that can least bear the burden."

How to accentuate the positive side of the paradox and diminish if not eliminate the negative is an elusive goal. Let's get back to this after looking more closely at the arrival of Baby 7B.

Banana Count

For the record: The UN's demographers calculated that the world population would hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011 so the first baby born on that historic Monday would herald the 7B Age.

Given the average number of children born per minute internationally, and the variety of time zones in which we all co-exist, identifying the undisputed No. 7B would have been a tough call. So celebrations were held all over the world on Oct. 31 to honour the arrival of the "symbolic" seven billionth among us.

Among those whose arrival on Planet Earth have been celebrated are Nargis of the village Malli in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state; Danica in teeming Manila, the Philippines; Muthumali in congested Colombo, Sri Lanka, and "Enough" in bustling South Africa – yes, "Enough" is actually what the newborn's 19-year-old mother called her.

Seven billion is a number that is difficult to visualize. To make it easier at least for children to get their minds around the idea, the Washington Post in its "juniors' section," KidsPost of Oct. 30, explained that "Americans consume 7 billion bananas, the nation's most popular fruit, roughly every four months." That's a whole lot of bananas.

Nasty Underside


The Baby 7Bs were born into a world of great progress, undreamt of prosperity, dazzling technological and scientific advances, developments in the field of modern medicine that have brought relief and consolation to many, enthralling activity in the arts, significant progress in national and international law, and a revolution in information technology that has changed how millions live. And yet, it is a world with a distressing underside as well.

The fact that the human population is already at 7 billion concerns demographers, academics, public and private sector development operatives and even politicians. They ask whether this number of people can be fed and whether their well-being, overall, can be nurtured. They are concerned, too, that in the process of feeding such large numbers, the world's fragile environment will be further assailed.

Eric Tayag of the Department of Health in the Philippines says: "Seven billion is a number we should think about deeply. We should really focus on the question of whether there will be food, clean water, shelter, education, and a decent life for every child. If the answer is 'no', it would be better for people to look at easing this population explosion."

On similar lines, Roger Cohen, a demographer at Rockefeller University, told CBS News: "Rapid population growth makes almost every other problem more difficult to solve. …If we could slow our growth rate, we would have an easier job in dealing with all the other things like education, health, employment, housing, food, the environment and so on."

People Problem

These two comments reflect the long-held view that the pressure of population causes devastating economic, social, and environmental problems that are all but insurmountable.

The often quoted assessment by Stanford University scientist Paul Ehrlich summed up that viewpoint. He said: "The United States should announce that it will no longer ship food to countries such as India where dispassionate analysis indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless."

Well, that "worst-case scenario" is behind us, and India is moving along at a fairly steady clip. There are many, however, including policy makers in India who will confirm that an unsustainable population is a vexing issue.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who showed by her policies including, briefly, enforced male sterilization, that she considered the pressure of population an issue that required effective correctives, took a holistic approach when she told W. David Hopper, a Canadian agricultural economist and the World Bank's Senior Vice President for Policy, Planning, and Research: "If I can find a way to ensure that women and girls are in full control of their bodies, we will not face a population problem."

That was a far-sighted, integrated, and complex approach which would have required not only changes in education, attitudes, and laws but of social structures as well.

There were echoes of her viewpoint in a cautionary comment from Barbara Crossette, a former doyenne of New York Times foreign correspondents who has a profound understanding of and familiarity with the global South. Crossette co-authored The State of the World Population 2011 which was recently published by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

"The figure of 7 billion is really irrelevant to many people, and most of all to women in the developing world where seven pregnancies is a much more significant number… They [women] have really been let down in many ways by the world," she told a news conference in New York, stressing that some governments are not supporting family planning and other related efforts.

Key Goals

Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director, appears determined to follow a course that will make the 7B Age less anxiety-ridden and more oriented towards positive solutions.

His view is encapsulated in the assertion: "Instead of asking questions like 'Are we too many?' we should be asking 'What can I do to make the world better?'."

In the hope of doing just that – making the world a better place for all 7 billion of us – UNFPA leads a program known as the 7 Billion Actions initiative. The program is directed at creating awareness of both the challenges and opportunities that confront the 7B Age. In specific terms, the program's two key objectives are:

- Building global awareness around the opportunities and challenges associated with a world of seven billion people.

- Inspiring governments, NGOs, the private sector, media, academia and individuals to take actions that will have a socially positive impact.

The program will concentrate on seven themes: Poverty and inequality; Women and girls empowerment; Reproductive health and rights; Young people; Ageing population; Environment; and Urbanization.

Reaping Dividends


Launching the program, UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon said: "The seven billionth citizen will be born into a world of contradictions. We have plenty of food yet millions are still starving. We see luxurious lifestyles yet millions are impoverished. We have great opportunities for progress but also great obstacles.”

He described the 7 Billion Actions initiative as "a clarion call to people, communities, countries and our partners: non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, academics and faith leaders."

Discrimination, human rights abuses, lack of democracy, violence against women, maternal mortality, climate change and the degradation of the environment were all on his list of challenges and, above all, poverty and inequality.

"These are all the challenges that we can and must overcome," he said. "If we invest in people, we will reap the best dividends."

To ensure progress, UNFPA reports that it has already recruited a broadly representative group of corporations, organisations, and individuals to be engaged in the initiative, using online, mobile and offline resources.

Consider This


The world's population which stood at 1 billion in 1804, moved to t billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1908, and now 7 billion.

UN demographers estimate that the world's population will be 8 billion in 2025 and 10 billion by 2083. These are long shot projections that could be affected by any number of factors including wars, economic malaise, health emergencies, support for family planning, and so on.

So, consider this.

From the time when President Truman "invented" international development cooperation up to now, the world has devised a series of plans and programs to reduce and finally eliminate poverty and its by-product hunger. In more recent years, the environment has been added as a third issue of special concern.

Much has been achieved, and much remains to be done. If the 7 Billion Actions initiative does help to accelerate real movement on all three fronts it will be well worth the effort. If it does not, it will go down as yet another well-meant “gimmick” worth less than the airtime taken to broadcast its launch. [IDN-InDepthNews - November 2, 2011]

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council. [Global Perspectives]

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