August 7, 2008

Sustainable populations and joined-up thinking

What I like about the Simultaneous Policy approach is that it promotes up joined-up thinking, in a way that current global policy making does not, as evidenced by our leaders efforts to tackle climate change, while increasing oil production or refusing to listen to the concerns of farmers in developing countries at the World Trade Organisation, while there is evidence that forcing open developing country markets has impoverished farmers and increased food insecurity in some countries (see past blogs).

Since starting this blog and thinking in a little more depth of the possibilities of the Simultaneous policy, there seem to be a multiplicity of ways that different global problems can be tackled in a coherent way.

Sustainability, population growth and protecting the right to food came together for me this week, re-reading Michael Latham's chapter in Global Obligations for the Right to Food about tackling the curse of worms, measles and malaria. Professor Latham recommends governments to take a Resolution to the World Health Assembly calling for a strategic program for tackling these three illnesses. This could be worth proposing for inclusion in the Simultaneous Policy.

Here's how some issues were joining up for me this week. I read that in Brazil, the birth rate has fallen to 1.8 children per woman, a level similar to that in industrialized countries. This level was not anticipated by the Brazilian National Institute of Geography and Statistics until 2043. The rapid drop is attributed to urbanization, where more children cost more money, in contrast to the countryside where historically more children have been seen as more hands to tend the land. But the rate has fallen in rural areas as quickly as in cities, attributed to the success in promoting family planning and the rising living standards experienced, or aspired to.

The expectation is that Brazilian's population will stabilise around 290 million inhabitants in 2050. The population if growth was at the rate of 1991, would be 377 million. With the rate of 1970, it would be 623 million.

If the average Brazilian was to increase their demand on the land to 4.1 hectares per person (the same as in Switzerland), then a population of 220 million could be supported. With present consumption levels, Brazil could support 384 millions. This is based on a study by the World Wide Fund for nature. All the above statistics are drawn from Brazil's news weekly, Veja, whose 30 July issue led with the cover story: "Where are all the babies?"

So achieving a sustainable population is within easy reach for Brazil, somewhere around the 220 - 290 million mark.

Sometimes in my work campaigning against the aggressive marketing of baby foods, practices which contribute to the unnecessary death and suffering of babies in conditions of poverty and compromises development elsewhere, I come across people who suggest that it is better that babies are dying in poor countries to limit population growth. Really. That's how some people think.

But the fact is that populations stabilise when parents have the expectation their babies will survive and outlive them. It is in conditions with high infant and young child mortality that birth rates tend to be higher. Rising standards of living also reduce birth rates as people are both more educated and raising children is more expensive. Parents choose to focus resources on a fewer number.

In the interests of sustainability for the global human population - and our lives on this planet are inextricably linked - reducing childhood mortality rates and raising standards of living benefits us all.

Michael Latham, like the rest of us who contributed chapters to Global Obligations for the Right to Food, makes the case that governments have obligations under existing human rights conventions to take collective action to deliver and protect the right to food. Promoting, protecting and supporting breastfeeding is part of the measures he highlights for improving child short and long-term health.

He also argues that relieving hunger encompasses relieving malnutrition and that is achieved not only by providing more food, but ending endemic parasites and illnesses that compromise nutrition.

I don't want to reiterate everything that is in his chapter - you really should buy the book - but the three principal concerns (worms, measles and malaria) are embarrassingly cheap to address. Embarrassing, because governments with the resources are failing to do so. They are not only failing in their human rights and moral obligations, they are, in some respects, costing themselves unnecessary expenditure.

Worms, parasites in the intestines that may affect organs such as the lungs, infect probably 2 billion people. Cambodia's de-worming programme cost US$ 0.06 per child.

There are about 50 million cases of measles every year, with about 1 million deaths. Immunization can have significant impact. "Six southern African countries that recorded 60,000 measles cases in 1996 reduced this to 117 cases in 2000". While national governments should be taking this action, where they cannot, the support of the international community is vital, argues Professor Latham, and will save them money if a concerted global campaign wipes out measles.

He writes: "It cost the United States US$ 124 million a year to keep itself free of smallpox for the twenty-five years prior to when smallpox was eradicated in 1978. Thus the US$32 million that the United States invested in the global Smallpox Eradication Program was recouped in about three months once smallpox vaccinations could be discontinued."

It is estimated that there are 1200 million cases of malaria every year, resulting in 1.5 million deaths annually. Impregnated bed nets are seen as an effective way to greatly reduce this toll. A net costs typically just US$ 3, but many people in poor countries cannot afford them. Malaria is so widespread that its impact is far greater than that counted in deaths. Lost schools days, days off work and unmet potential are also a blight.

Governments have signed up to the human rights instruments, that include the right to health as well as the right to food, and the Millenium Development Goals, but are failing to meet the obligations that arise from these.

A joined up approach would suggest serious and concerted effort to tackle worms, measles and malaria is a worthy candidate for inclusion in the Simultaneous Policy as it will not only address the injustice of people on our planet suffering from preventable illness, but will help reduce costs for all people and lead to lower mortality rates and smaller families and towards sustainable populations.

Join the discussion in the Simpol Forum at:

Sign up as a Simultaneous Policy Adopter to vote on suggestions and put forward your own. Call on your political representatives to pledge to implement the Simultaneous Policy alongside other governments.

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