Birth rates 'must be curbed to win war on global poverty'

The earth's population will approach an unsustainable total of 10.5 billion unless contraception is put back at the top of the agenda for international efforts to alleviate global poverty. A report by MPs released today challenges world leaders to put the contraceptive pill and the condom at the centre of their efforts to alleviate global poverty, tackle starvation and even help to avert global warming.

Gordon Brown has staked his future premiership on leading the world in tackling global poverty. And the report, by the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive growth, makes the point that the population surge presents a massive stumbling block for his ambition.

Since the 1970s, when coercion was used in India and China, family planning has become a dirty word among environmental and hunger campaigners. But the report warns that eight UN targets for reducing poverty in the developing world will be missed unless world leaders do more to stop the soaring birth rates.

The group says the UK will have to take on the religious ideology of the neoconservatives in the White House against contraception. The MPs call for an end to the so-called "global gag rule", that was reintroduced by President George Bush.

It has put non-governmental organisations outside the US "in an untenable position" and forced them to choose between carrying out their work safeguarding the health and rights of women or losing their funding from the US.

The Labour MP Christine McCafferty, who chairs the group, said there would be a 50 per cent rise in the world's population by 2050 unless family planning was made more freely available in the developing world, where 99 per cent of the growth is expected to occur.

The report says there is "overwhelming" evidence that the UN's millennium development goals will be missed if population growth is not curbed. The goals include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, combating HIV/Aids and ensuring environmental sustainability.

The report carries a graph illustrating the "bulge" in population growth in developing countries since the 1950s, while the birth rate in developed countries has stagnated. The worst-case scenario predicts that unless it is checked the earth's population could soar out of control to more than 36 billion over the next 300 years.

"Once population growth gains a certain speed it is hard to slow," says the report. "As a result of rapid population growth a generation ago, China has a growing number of young married women of childbearing age.

"In Africa, the diversion of attention from population and the stalled fertility decline has occurred just as population momentum was beginning to slow with extremely serious long-term implications."

The population explosion has led to an increase in the numbers in extreme poverty living on less than $1 a day. In 1990, 44.6 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa were living in extreme poverty and this grew to 46.4 per cent in 2001. Because of population growth, the number of people affected rose from 231 million to 318 million.

Many countries that lowered their birth rates, such as South Korea, have reduced poverty. But the MPs say: "Continued rapid population growth in today's poorest countries presents a serious barrier to meeting the millennium target of poverty reduction."

Richard Ottaway, the Tory vice-chairman of the group, said: "This is not the developed world telling the undeveloped countries what they ought to be doing. None of the poorest 50 countries think that their populations are too small and 80 per cent think they are too high."

UN goals in jeopardy

Reduce Extreme Poverty

Target: Halve by 2015 number of people who earn less than $1 a day

Report: "Rapid pace of population growth means... we are not even succeeding in keeping the numbers living in extreme poverty stable."

Universal Primary Education

Target: Ensure that by 2015 children will have a full primary schooling

Report: "The number of school-age children can double every 20 years - an extra two million school teachers per year are required just to stand still."

Gender Equality

Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005

Report: "The ability of women to control their own fertility is absolutely fundamental to women's empowerment and equality." So far, many lack it.

Combat HIV/AIDS

Target: Halt by 2015 and reverse the spread of HIV/Aids

Report: "Some progress... But population growth has a negative impact on gaining control over spread of HIV/Aid through increased urbanisation."

Reduce Child Mortality

Target: Reduce by two thirds by 2015

Report: "Evidence reveals at least two important causes of child mortality are directly linked to population growth: high fertility and reduced access to safe drinking water."

Improve Maternal Health

Target: Reduce by three quarters by 2015 the maternal mortality rate

Report: "High fertility strongly increases a woman's lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes."

Guard Environmental Sustainability

Target: Integrate principles of sustainable development into country policies

Report: "Reversing the loss of environmental resources cannot be achieved in the context of rapid or even moderate population growth without addressing the demographic factor."

Water Provision

Target: Halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation

Report: "As population grows, the UN estimates two thirds of the world's population will face moderate to high water shortages by 2025."

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