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The Elephant in the Room

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For years, too many political and opinion leaders around the world have shrugged off concerns about rapid population growth and escalating consumption patterns as overstated warnings from scientific Chicken Littles.

Now, the chickens are coming home to roost. The signals are manifest:
  • In rising global temperatures, melting polar ice, devastating wildfires and other extreme weather events;
  • In the political dissatisfaction of the world's largest ever generation of young people, for whom jobs are scarce and the future is uncertain; and
  • In the growing social and economic inequities that exist between and within countries.

Demographic trends are central to these challenges, but for a variety of reasons, most political leaders have closed their eyes and pretended that the problems don't exist or are too long-term to attend to.

Reestablishing global priority for comprehensive population and development initiatives must be a top priority of the next decade. The reluctance of political leaders to prioritize these issues is understandable on one level -- population issues touch on such sensitive topics as sexual behavior, human rights, culture and religion; consumption runs smack into powerful issues of resource extraction and use, pollution and intergenerational responsibility. Addressing these trends requires patient, sustained engagement over a period of decades.

More difficult to overcome are the chasms of misperception purposefully ginned up to suggest controversy where none should exist. Entrenched special interests have invested handsomely in elaborate public relations campaigns that give politicians an excuse to pretend that there is scientific doubt about the relationship between the burning of fossil fuels and our changing climate. Religious zealots that long for Victorian morality wholly rejected by the populace raise the specter of social chaos. The smokescreen of controversy perpetuates the status quo -- male dominance and unfettered use of the Earth's natural resources.

The efforts to stigmatize the population and climate issues have been remarkably successful -- a short-term victory for a narrow band of interests, a long-term tragedy for humanity. Most troubling has been the dismantling of the broad political consensus that made international family planning programs among the most widely embraced and successful human development efforts of the past 50 years. Twenty years ago, remarkable political agreement was reached at the International Conference on Population and Development on a comprehensive action plan. It was agreed that the international community should work together to achieve universal access to safe, voluntary reproductive health services so everyone can plan and space pregnancies, prevent and treat sexually transmitted diseases, and experience births that are safe for women and children alike. It was also agreed that these health initiatives must be buttressed with corresponding efforts to empower women and secure their universally recognized human rights to economic opportunity, education, civic participation and the other social and legal protections they need to make free decisions in their lives.

But the global consensus has been eroded over the past two decades under withering and persistent attacks that have weakened political leadership and caused donor assistance to waver. Population dynamics have become the elephant in the room: It is perfectly understood that demography is driving our economic, social, and environmental future, yet the issues are considered unfit for conversation for polite company or public policy. Nor is there engagement on newer and complex global demographic trends such as aging, migration, and urbanization. Despite broad-based U.S. public support for international family planning and other foreign assistance, the Obama administration has had to fight heavy opposition from the conservative House to secure funding for these essential programs. In the absence of global government leadership, public-private partnerships are emerging to advance solutions to HIV/AIDS, maternal health and child survival.

This week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the government of the United Kingdom convened government and non-governmental leaders in London to rebuild and reenergize the worldwide commitment to accessing voluntary contraception -- a key goal established in numerous international agreements.

The family planning summit successfully mobilized resources and commitments to provide voluntary family planning services to an additional 120 million women around the world. This effort will help address the gap that exists for the more than 200 million people who want, but don't have access to modern contraceptive services. Equally important, the summit made family planning part of the public dialogue. Our challenge moving forward is to make sure the conversation continues.

Few of the international community's aspirations for security, prosperity and sustainability can be achieved without consistent, courageous leadership on population and development initiatives. It's time we once again talk about them and take them on.