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The world’s population and its dynamics play an enormous role in shaping the world we live in and in shaping the world future generations inherit. The sustainability of our lives depends not only on the type of energy we use, but also on how many people there are on our planet and the quality of their lives. The rate at which the global population grows, how healthy it is, how young or old it is, how much of it is employed or unemployed, whether the majority chooses to live in cities or rural areas; all of this matters. Access to family planning influences all of that. Discussing voluntary family planning should therefore be part of any discussion on population and population should be part of any discussion on sustainable development.

Neglecting population issues can jeopardize food security, economic growth, global health, political stability, and further endanger our already ailing earth. Efforts towards sustainable development will not work as long as these efforts remain cut off from  population dynamics in general and family planning in particular.

Plenty of people realize this. This is nothing new. Along with others, this has been pointed out by everyone’s favorite climate change activist, Al Gore. Why then is access to family planning, something that leads to healthy children, healthy mothers, healthy economies, and healthy countries, left off of the slate for the upcoming Rio + 20 Conference to take place this June in Brazil?

The Rio + 20 Conference will serve as a follow-up conference to the Earth Summit that occurred in 1992 in the same city. This conference is intended not only to measure how the world has progressed since 1992, but is also supposed to help chart a sustainable path for economic growth for the future. Like any large summit with delegations attending from most of the world’s countries, work on the outcome document, an agreed upon statement essentially, has begun well before the summit. Watching the progression of the outcome document can tell observers a little bit about what will actually be achieved. This has already begun for Rio + 20 with the release of a zero draft. Absent from the zero draft unfortunately, is any mention of family planning.

A zero draft is only a rough collection of ideas put on paper, so there is time for progress, but it is still troubling to see that population issues have been left out of these initial brainstorming stages.

Making progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is mentioned, and family planning is integrated into goal number five, but that is still not really enough. To make progress on something, to include something as one of a set of tools, it has to be mentioned specifically, it has to be named. That has not been done so far.

Alluding to the issue will not do. Alluding, however, is all that this document does.

Here is some sample text to prove the point:

We acknowledge, however, that there have also been setbacks because of multiple interrelated crises – financial, economic and volatile energy and food prices. Food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss have adversely affected development gains. New scientific evidence points to the gravity of the threats we face. New and emerging challenges include the further intensification of earlier problems calling for more urgent responses. We are deeply concerned that around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty and one sixth of the world’s population is undernourished, pandemics and epidemics are omnipresent threats. Unsustainable development has increased the stress on the earth’s limited natural resources and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Our planet supports seven billion people expected to reach nine billion by 2050.

There it is. Did you see that? You may have to go back and look again, but it’s there. That’s right, it does say population. It even says how many people we have on our planet and how many more we will have in roughly four decades. But that’s what’s so frustrating about this document. It’s as if everyone knows what the issue is, but just doesn’t say it. These are highly educated delegates from around the world so they can’t simply be ignorant, can they?

Let’s pause for a minute to consider something.

Can the world make significant progress on the issues in the text above without increasing women’s voluntary access to family planning? How healthy can a population be if significant amounts of its women begin bearing children before their bodies are fully able? What if women cannot determine the spacing of their pregnancies and begin another pregnancy before they have recuperated from the last?

Moving on…

Maybe we are just supposed to guess at what they mean. There is a lot of talk in the document about the three pillars of sustainable development: economic factors; social factors; and environmental factors. Are we just supposed to assume that population issues like voluntary family planning are included in social factors? Why doesn’t the document just come out and say it?

Here’s another bit of text:

We call for removing barriers that have prevented women from being full participants in the economy and unlocking their potential as drivers of sustainable development, and agree to prioritize measures to promote gender equality in all spheres of our societies, including education, employment, ownership of resources, access to justice, political representation, institutional decision-making, care giving and household and community management.

Close, but no cigar.

Maybe the document is vague in general and doesn’t mention other specifics?

Not really.

The document mentions green jobs six different times. Green economy, twenty four times. Biodiversity, six times. Even climate change is mentioned seven times.

The word population is used twice. Family planning, zero. Contraception, zero. Sex education, zero. How about even the word sex? That’s right, zero.

Why is the document specific about some things but not about others? Why does this document not include any reference to family planning? Are they just stupid? No.

Here is the likely reason in one word: cowardice.


The recent violence (in South Sudan) serves as a test for the United States and the United Nations, both of which have worked hard to build the governing capacity of the world’s newest country. Washington was the key broker behind the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that led to the eventual independence of the south; its credibility is on the line if South Sudan falls into chaos. A stable South Sudan, by contrast, could boost the UN and its peacekeeping efforts at a time when many in Washington and on the U.S. campaign trail are griping about the alleged ineffectiveness of the UN.

Read the full article here:

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s an election year and even though we are roughly 11 months removed from “Decision 2012” the current circus that is the Republican Primaries ensures that we will pay absolutely no attention to anything other than personal attacks and meaningless debates for the next year. As if the United States isn’t insular enough, we will now turn our attention to a bunch of half-baked tax reform schemes, climate change denial, accusations over past business and governance records, and sensationalized television ads.  We see this charade every four years, but still haven’t wised up.

At least this time around there isn’t a veteran running for office so we can be spared the debate over whether said candidate was an actual war hero or not(remember 2004).

So here is a little run-down of what we will increasingly not pay attention too:

Our unsettling conflict with Iran

That we were preparing for a third war during the Bush administration was really no surprise, but that rhetoric during our current administration is beginning to mirror its predecessor is truly unsettling. Being on the brink of war requires indefatigable attention from civil society, the press, and the public in order to make sure our elected leaders make the right decisions.

Now is not the time for sideshows.

Violence in Africa (we never really paid attention to this anyway)

The world’s newest independent nation of South Sudan has plunged into a “vortex of violence” due to tribal tensions that were kept under wraps during the country’s fight for independence, but have now boiled to the surface.

As human beings, we have a moral responsibility to help the lowest and the least, but since it seems as if decreasing numbers of Americans share this belief, the civilians in South Sudan will probably be left to their own devices.

The Purchasing of Congress (This obviously occurred long ago, but the fact that it continues should still upset us)

According to the Guardian:

“New analysis of oil industry contributions to members of Congress has revealed the level of the oil lobby’s financial firepower that Barack Obama can expect to face in the November elections if he refuses to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.”

Do you ever feel like a crazy person because no one else seems to be bothered by something you find so alarming? Please see exhibit A above.

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir recently traveled to neighboring Libya to offer some sagely advice to the National Transitional Council (NTC), the apparent “only legitimate body representing the people of Libya.”  According to Bashir, Libya needs to be on the watch for remaining elements of the Qaddafi regime and should establish executive and legislative institutions. Bashir also offered assistance in merging former rebels into the country’s national army, saying “we have an experience in integrating rebels in a national army.”

Did we wake up in an episode of the Twilight Zone?

Is this some kind of sick joke?

Bashir, who seized power in a coup in 1989, certainly has experience with militias; unfortunately it’s with arming them.

For decades, the Sudanese government, under Bashir’s leadership, has armed and supported militias to fight in its bloody southern civil war. Now that that war has ended, allegations persist over alleged Sudanese support of rebels in the newly independent republic of South Sudan. Sudan also permitted the training of thousands of Osama Bin Laden’s mujahidin in the mid-1990s. Earlier, the Bashir government supported rebellions in Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Most regrettable is Sudan’s support for the deplorable Lord’s Resistance Army still plaguing Uganda to this day.

Maybe Libya’s new leadership just missed all of this.

Could they possibly have missed what happened in Darfur?

In case anyone else did, in 2002 Khartoum started arming militias in a local struggle between Arab pastoralists and African agriculturalists in the country’s Darfur region. When rebels started fighting against the government much in the way southern rebels had done in the past, the government armed and supported the infamous Janjaweed militia. The Janjaweed subsequently murdered, raped, and pillaged at will.

The new Libyan leadership must learn proper governance and faces challenges unique to those faced by almost every other country in the world. To seek advice from a neighbor that has shared challenges and a shared history is understandable, but this is not the administration that the NTC should be emulating. The international community must overshadow Bashir’s offers of help by offering substitute assistance and by pointing out that taking advice from one of the world’s most notorious war criminals will not teach them how to build a stable democracy.

Hopefully this episode of the Twilight Zone will end shortly.

Latin America seems to be the region of the world most neglected by American mainstream news media and at times by American foreign policy. Without the seeming perpetual state of crisis of Africa, or the economic importance of Asia or Europe (though Latin America is catching up and increasing in its economic importance) it appears like both talking heads and policy makers have forgotten this part of the world exists at all. As if North America is the only America.

Why should we pay attention?

Generally, it’s worth paying attention to events in all parts of the world so that we can speak out intelligently when something is going wrong. If we pay attention all the time, we have a more enlightened view than if we pay attention only when a crisis is occurring.

Specifically, governments in Latin America, particularly those in the Amazon, are on the front lines in the debate between economic development and environmental conservation. Seeing how governments and societies reconcile these two interests may give us an idea of how other countries will face similar problems. Who knows, we may even get some good (or bad) ideas ourselves. Given the current domestic debate in the U.S. over the construction of the Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline, we may even see some parallel conflicts.

Many parts of Latin America are rapidly breaking the chains of poverty. Brazil for example has seen over 40 million people move out of extreme poverty over the last 20 years.  While the rest of the world still seems to be playing economic freeze-tag, projections show that growth will continue for our southern neighbors in 2012.

This is undisputable good news.

However it has also been said that the Amazon rainforest loses an area of land equivalent to the size of New Jersey each year. Not only does this result in the loss of unique species and ecosystems, but it also threatens marginalized indigenous communities. Also, as trees take in Carbon Dioxide, the Amazon is one of the earth’s last remaining defenses against the scourge of climate change. Latin American leaders are often also the ones leading the charge against developed nations in the struggle to limit the impact of climate change. They often charge that they should not have to constrain their own economic growth because of damage done mostly by developed countries.

The cause of this destruction is in part the area’s economic growth. Increased infrastructure and the logging industry are two key variables in the negative relationship between economic growth and environmental conservation.

Bolivia is quickly becoming a key flash point in the debate between environmental conservation and economic development.  This South American country made a news splash this spring with the passage of the Law of Mother Earth, which enumerates the rights of the earth as well as the responsibilities of individuals and the government to protect it. Though the legislation is vague and appears to be more of a message than an act of governance, it is a first step towards establishing rights something people around the world claim is continuously under attack.

Bolivian leaders, aside from attempting to protect their country from climate change, also face the challenge of lifting their society out of poverty. The tension between these two national interests was apparent in a recent debate over a proposed road through the Amazon, where police violently suppressed protests. Bolivian President Evo Morales also recently announced hopes to construct a railway that would run from Puerto Suarez, on Bolivia’s border with Brazil, to the Pacific port of Ilo in Peru. While protests have yet to erupt around the rail line, this is one more habitually neglected story that we should be paying attention to.

Reconciling economic development and environmental conservation is a global dilemma, one that the Obama administration is currently dealing with on the Keystone XL issue and it would behoove us to pay attention to other countries’ similar struggles.

Nigeria was in the news this past week mostly for the Christmas Day bombings perpetrated by the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram that claimed 39 lives. Amidst this terrible carnage something else happened that captured a little less coverage.

More oil spilled into the Niger Delta.

On Wednesday, December 21, Shell Nigeria announced that 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled while it was being transferred from a floating oil platform to a tanker 75 miles off the coast of the Niger Delta. Satellite imagery suggests that the oil has spread over 356 square miles. This spill is considered to be one of the worst within the last ten years. Shell Nigeria spokesmen have since stated that the spill has been contained and that nothing came ashore though environmental groups in Nigeria claim that oil slicks have been spotted near the coast.

Earlier this year the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report detailing the damage done by oil extraction to Ogoniland – a part of the country in the Niger Delta region – and held that “the environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.”

The report demonstrates the scale of environmental damage done to the area after 50 years of oil operations. Drinking water in some areas poses serious public health concerns with carcinogen levels 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines (WHO). Fish habitats – which local fishermen depend upon – have been devastated and regional soil is grossly contaminated. Health complaints include burning sensations in the eyes, respiratory problems, frequent rashes, bloody stools, and constant headaches. Some have even reported multiple miscarriages.

What this means is that the most recent spill was not an isolated incident. In fact more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta region each year than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the Nigerian government, more that 7,000 spills occurred between 1970 and 2000. Many of the spills only receive attention after months of inaction.

In addition to adverse health consequences, the oil spills and acid rain sound a near death knell to the local water dependent economy. Fish are also apparently driven away due to the increase in large boat traffic. The oil industry unfortunately does not offer an alternative to the locals since most of the oil related jobs go to the country’s political and economic elites. Leaving many with no incomes, residents are forced to search for means to live elsewhere.

National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill sums up the impact of oil aptly in a piece from 2007. According to O’Neill, “Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches – fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.”

Nigeria began exporting oil in the early 1960’s and by the late 1970’s it was the sixth largest oil producer in the world. This sudden rush of riches into government coffers sparked a mad dash for political office bringing patronage and corruption to their current infamous levels. Furthermore, as in other countries plagued by the “resource curse,” oil generates enough revenue for the state in order to make taxation of the people unnecessary. Without the need for taxes and the need for resources from its people, the government can afford to ignore the concerns of the population. 

This attitude may be one of the key causes of the area’s insurrection which threatens to turn this region of the world into the new Middle East. According to author Petter Maass in the book Crude World, “rebellion, in such conditions, is inevitable.”

Oil is now the country’s primary export, but according to O’Neill, “its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts.” According to Maass “nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday.” Oil, with its superb ability to release energy and move the modern world at an unprecedented pace, seems as if it is not getting the people of Nigeria very far at all.

Oddly enough, though Nigeria is a leading exporter of oil, it has to import the refined product back into the country in order for it to be of any use to the local population due to the sub par nature of its own refineries.        

Like oil, blame is also easy to find in the Niger Delta. NGO’s, local environmentalists, and at times the UN point the finger at Shell claiming that its pipelines are outdated and poorly maintained. Shell in turn points to the acts of terrorists, black marketeers, and saboteurs.

Unlike oil generated wealth, the blame can probably be shared. 

Progressively minded westerners are now in a search for alternatives to oil mostly because of its general impact, namely climate change. Seldom do we look at the impact that oil has on the lands that it comes from. In the Niger Delta for example, life may have been better off if oil was never found, and its continued extraction doesn’t seem to be making things any better for everyday citizens.

Nigeria presents us with one more reason to turn our backs on black gold.

Progress in Guinea: Baby Steps

Posted: December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

Human Rights Watch released a statement this week regarding the progress made by President Alpha Conde of Guinea after one year in office. “President Conde has made some progress in confronting the serious governance and human rights problems he inherited, but there is much work left to be done,” said Corrinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch.

According to the statement, the positive strides made by the country include efforts to rein in the country’s notoriously abusive security forces, greater respect for due process, and the creation of a committee to reconcile ethnic tensions. The statement unfortunately also mentions multiple areas where progress has been slow such as the timing of legislative elections. The greatest stain mentioned in the report however regards the lack of accountability for the massacre of September 28th, 2009.

Guinea is a miniscule West African country that is barely ever mentioned in western news media, let alone in the headlines. The country did make the news a little over two years ago for something no country should ever be known for. In late September members of an elite section of the armed forces known as the Presidential Guard entered an opposition rally at a packed stadium and opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians.

150 people were killed and over 100 women were raped. Many unconscionable acts better left unwritten were committed in a seemingly premeditated effort to intimidate the country’s opposition. A UN led inquiry concluded that the atrocities most likely amounted to crimes against humanity.

In 2010 the government swore it would bring those responsible to justice. At the end of 2011, not a single indictment has been issued. The government has presented no evidence that the investigation has progressed and has allegedly made no efforts to locate bodies disposed of by the security forces after the incident. Adding insult to injury, President Conde has appointed two men implicated in the massacre to high-level positions.

None of this lack of progress is making the news the way the killings did over two years ago. Guinea’s “Bloody Monday” presents the quintessential forgotten story. Gruesome stories make the news, but not many bother to see how things turn out afterward.

While any progress towards justice, rule of law, democracy, and human rights should be applauded, by not bringing those responsible for the killing of September 2009 to justice, the government of Guinea is sending the message that its people cannot protest without fear of being maimed, assaulted, and killed.

Baby steps towards good governance just aren’t good enough.