Leading Article: Rich and poor must unite on population

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YESTERDAY was the UN's World Population Day . . . one more date with a public relations label attached. There are now so many of these special days and weeks cycling through the calendar that they are in danger of doing more harm than good, lowering rather than raising awareness.

Yet if any issue deserves its day it must be population, the mother of all environmental quandaries. This year, with a summit in Cairo (the UN's International Conference on Population and Development) in September, there is a chance to kill off the sterile, who's-to-blame debate between north and south on population growth and accelerate the progress already under way.

The developed world should recognise that hectoring on the need for population control is almost useless. It causes resentment and can encourage compulsory, morally indefensible and ultimately unsustainable population control programmes run by dictatorial governments. Rich countries should also realise that their rapid consumption of natural resources and their squandering of the planet's capacity to absorb waste are as great a threat to the global environment as is population growth.

Unless the rich are willing to accept their responsibilities, the Third World will try to follow the same destructive path to affluence. But since population growth is also a threat it falls to those with wealth and resources to help. Aid budgets are falling but the programmes that encourage parents, especially mothers, to have smaller, healthier families, need expansion. There is far more to this than subsidised contraceptives and free advice - basic healthcare for mothers and infants, sexual equality and educational opportunities for girls are just as important.

Poor countries must acknowledge, as most now do, that population control is in their own interests. Their goal should be to make contraception and family planning advice available to every adult and adolescent without coercion, and to recognise that pharmacies, local community organisations and schools all have a part to play.

The Vatican and some Roman Catholic nations may find this hard to stomach. Their determination to block any policy which hints at encouragement of abortion is understandable. But they should not be allowed to stop the rest of the world reaching agreement in Cairo.