Steven Sinding: It's not population numbers that matter, but people

From a speech by the director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation at the Countdown 2015

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Remember the "population explosion"? The phrase used to be as common as "global warming" is today - and for much the same reason. It was the biggest threat to humanity, a harbinger of planetary doom. This year, the vogue phrase is "birth dearth". Some experts think the next century's biggest problem will be too few people, not too many.

Remember the "population explosion"? The phrase used to be as common as "global warming" is today - and for much the same reason. It was the biggest threat to humanity, a harbinger of planetary doom. This year, the vogue phrase is "birth dearth". Some experts think the next century's biggest problem will be too few people, not too many.

Some of us thought the two ends of the argument were joined up 10 years ago, when the International Conference on Population and Development met in Cairo. The ICPD put human rights and choice at the centre of policies on population and development. It agreed on goals to improve reproductive health for everyone, meet young people's needs, and empower women.

In many poor countries family planning is still virtually unknown outside the big cities. Half a million women still die every year from causes related to pregnancy. One in every 10 pregnancies ends in unsafe abortion, some 19 million each year.

Cairo's promises have not moved from the paper they were written on. And that failure has revived talk about numbers rather than people. With 130 million births a year, there is no "birth dearth". But there is a dearth of commitment to change.

Developing countries need help to integrate reproductive health, Aids and human rights work around the Cairo agenda; rich countries need to understand the importance of the Cairo goals to peace and security; all countries must commit the funding agreed 10 years ago. When they do, both "population explosion" and "birth dearth" will find their way into the history books.

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