December 14, 2009

When Thinking about Saving the Future, Don't Forget about Family Planning
McClatchy has a big article on how the Bush administration extended its hostility to family planning to its massive multibillion dollar global anti-AIDS inititative:
On a continent where fewer than one in five married women use modern contraception, an explosion of unplanned pregnancies is threatening to bury Adongo's family and a generation of Africans under a mountain of poverty.

Promoting birth control in Africa faces a host of obstacles — patriarchal customs, religious taboos, ill-equipped public health systems — but experts also blame a powerful, more distant force: the U.S. government.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States withdrew from its decades-long role as a global leader in supporting family planning, driven by a conservative ideology that favored abstinence and shied away from providing contraceptive devices in developing countries, even to married women.

Bush's mammoth global anti-AIDS initiative, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, poured billions of dollars into Africa but prohibited groups from spending any of it on family planning services or counseling programs, whose budgets flat-lined.

The restrictions flew in the face of research by international aid agencies, the U.N. World Health Organization and the U.S. government's own experts, all of whom touted contraception as a crucial method of preventing births of babies being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The Bush program is widely hailed as a success, having supplied lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs to more than 2 million HIV patients worldwide.

However, researchers, Africa experts and veteran U.S. health officials now think that PEPFAR also contributed to Africa's epidemic population growth by undermining efforts to help women in some of the world's poorest countries exercise greater control over their fertility.

With local economies and governments unable to absorb that kind of growth, this is a disaster in the making. While the article doesn't connect these dots, I'd point out that the debate over agricuture, GMOs, hunger -- over global warming itself -- comes down to various opinions on how to deal with a planetary population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Meanwhile, programs that focus on empowering women, including but not limited to giving them access to real family planning, could go a long way toward reducing that "Peak People" figure, which would make our goals that much more achievable. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about food, ag and climate need to focus on the extent to which our future is linked to that of the developing world. Right now, there's a subtext of "better them than us" floating through much of the climate and food-related discourse. As a remedy, I feel compelled to paraphrase one of Bill Clinton's best lines from the 1992 campaign: when we're talking about the health of the plant there is no them -- there's only us.

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