WITHIN the next few years, Mexico City and the sprawling shanty towns which encircle it will overtake Tokyo as the world's largest conurbation, with a population of over 18 million. It is thus a particularly appropriate setting for the current World Population Conference, which began on Monday under the auspices of the United Nations.
It is the second such gathering of north and south to discuss population growth. The first took place in Bucharest in 1974 when the industrialised north, anxious at the rate of population growth in the developing south, promoted birth control as the answer to world's problems. The Third World countries, while in practice forced to go along with this, in theory reacted against it, and coined the slogan "development is the best contraceptive".
Since 1974 another 700 million have joined the world population. Although birth rates have fallen in Latin America and Asia — most notably in China where the policy of forcibly limiting each family to one child has reduced the birth rate to 1.1 per cent — in Africa the trend has continued upwards. Kenya has the highest birth rate in the world at 4 per cent.
The recent drought which has threatened the lives of one in three of all Africans has once again focused attention on the problems of population growth on the African continent. During a recent trip to Zimbabwe, the DirectorGeneral of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation expressed his concern that "many African countries, if they do not take positive action to encourage a drop in fertility rates, are speeding headlong to disaster.
I his view has been borne out by the World Bank \vhich recently predicted that world population will double by the year 2050 to 10 billion. "Unless we confront this dilemma today there will be poverty-stricken people in tomorrow's developing world in increasing numbers and indescribable misery", Mr Tom Clausen, its President commented.
Lining up alongside the FAO
arid the World Bank at the Mexico Conference will be many of the Third World countries themselves. In their experience the continually climbing birth rate has outpaced economic development. Expanding capacity to produce goods simply cannot match up to increasing population, they claim. Thus they have abandoned their 1974 stance, and thrown themselves completely behind the view that the birth rate must be reduced as a necessary prerequisite for economic development. It was the Third World countries which called for the Mexico meeting.
But is a reduced birth rate really so essential to economic development? The United States delegation for one do not think so. In an advance policy statement the United States describes population growth as a "neutral phenomenon. It is not necessarily good or evil. More people do not necessarily mean less growth".
The United States blamed the continuing rise in world population on excessive government control. What was needed, they said, was a free market economy in Third World countries which could satisfy people's material needs. Only when such needs are satisfied, the US delegation stated, will people have less children.
The second basis of the United States platform at the Conference is that abortion should cease to be "actively promoted as a method of family planning". To back up this view, the US has announced that it will cm off all funds to voluntary organisations which encourage abortion. The principal sufferer in this would appear to be the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation which receives a quarter of its annual budget from Washington.
The United States will also require all governments which allow abortion to put any US aid which they receive into a "segregated account" so that it may not be used "in a manner contrary to the dictates of our national conscience".
The US team in Mexico, led by the Catholic, ex-Senator James Buckley, will in short be going back on the main thrust of the Bucharest Conference.
This voile face seems to emanate from the White House, and there have been rumblings of displeasure heard in recent weeks from both the US State Department and USA1D, the United States Agency for International Development.
There are two aspects to the President's change of heart. The first is plain electioneering. He is anxious to keep the support of the pro-life lobby in the run-up to the election, and recent reports of IPPF forcing women in El Salvador to undergo sterilisation operations, while receiving US aid, has done the administration's reputation no good.
But economic dogmatism does play a part in the President's stance also. With Africa starving, and the Soviet Union temporarily unable to answer their needs for food, the emphasis has fallen heavily on the United States. The President is seeking to take advantage of this to impress some of his own economic theories on the developing world.
This change of attitude has seemingly placed the United States in the same camp as the Vatican. Earlier this year at a preparatory meeting for the Mexico Conference, Mgr James McHugh, the special adviser to the Vatican observer mission at the United Nations, criticised the bias towards contraception and abortion in UN policies in the Third World, and challenged the view that lower fertility was an essential prerequisite to economic development. What was needed he urged was a greater and broader commitment to social justice in the Third World.
For instance in the poor Indian state of Kerala, where economic standards have changed little over the past decade, the birth rate has been steadily falling. This has been brought about by a mixture of land and wage reforms to favour the poorer sections of the community, instruction in natural methods of family planning, and health and marriage education.
Speaking recently to Rafael Sales, one of the United lqations team organising the conference, Pope John Paul II said: "In a word, development strategy should be Wised on a just worldwide socio-economic order, directed towards an equitable sharing of created goods, responsible stewardship of the
environment and natural resources, and a sense of moral responsibility and co-operation among nations in order to achieve peace, security and economic stability for all. Above all development should not be interpreted simply in terms of population control".
A second preparatory meeting for the Mexico Conference held in New York in March put forward a series of resolutions for discussion at the conference which at least answer some of the Vatican's demands — namely that any family planning programmes be placed firmly in the context of a greater economic and social development programme. But it appears that these will only be a side issue at Mexico.
But some would question whether the Mexico Conference is even necessary. Are we losing sight of work) needs? Soon after the Bucharest Conference in 1974 a conference on world food took place in Rome. Dr Henry Kissinger told delegates that within the next ten years nobody in the world should have to go to bed hungry.
In 1984 millions are starving in Africa, whilst the world produces more than enough food annually to feed itself. There is no food conference planned for this year, and the meeting at Mexico will include no look at the unequal and unfair distribution of world food resources, and how that system could be corrected to the benefit of all.