(September 2002) The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), or Earth Summit, brought together world leaders from more than 100 countries to negotiate local, regional, and global commitments to implement sustainable development. Although the three pillars of sustainable development — economic, environmental, and social — are all intrinsically linked to population issues, population was left off the WSSD agenda. PRB spoke with several experts in the population field to get their perspectives on this omission:

Richard Leete is chief of the population and development branch at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which works to improve access to and the quality of reproductive health care in developing nations.
June Zeitlin is the executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international advocacy organization that seeks to increase the power of women worldwide as policymakers at all levels in governments, institutions and forums.
Zonny Woods is director of government relations at Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD), a nongovernmental education and advocacy organization working on international population and development issues.

PRB: How do you see population as intrinsic to a discussion on sustainable development?

Richard Leete: The UNFPA fully supports the statement issued by the Global Science Panel on Population and Environment, which says, “If we do not put the human population at the core of the sustainable development agenda, our efforts to improve human well-being and preserve the quality of the environment will fail. The Johannesburg Summit must heed the first principle of the 1992 Rio Declaration — that ‘human beings are at the center of concern for sustainable development’ — by taking full account of how population and society interact with the natural environment.”

June Zeitlin: We see population as a sub-issue of consumption because it’s not just numbers, but lifestyles, that dictate consumption. Demographically speaking, we see it as more of a human rights issue. Sustainable development is an overarching framework that looks at balancing economic, social, and environmental needs of society: Most research says that the more education women have and the greater access to reproductive health services (which is more than contraception) leads to smaller families and therefore more sustainable development. Focusing on just demographic issues doesn’t necessarily lead to sustainable development. Where human needs aren’t being met very well and women’s lives are constrained, where women have limited ability to exercise their rights, that’s where you find larger families. Our underlying premise is that it’s a woman’s right to decide. But the exercising of those rights where there is education and access has tended to lead to smaller families.

PRB: What do you see as the relationship between population and sustainable development?

Zeitlin: Sustainable development is really a woman’s issue and if women are to take on multiple roles in society — such as economic and decisionmaker roles, as well as the traditional role of caregiver — that’s very hard to do when you have a large family. This is also related to having opportunities and being able to access their rights.

You can’t talk about sustainable development without talking about women’s rights.

Zonny Woods: If you want to talk about population issues, you need to address gender and human rights within the contest of WSSD. For example, although there have been long discussions about incorporating a gender equality perspective into the program [of the WSSD], this issue is not being sufficiently addressed. Looking at the linkages between health and the environment, there should be a gender perspective — a lot of work needs to be done with women and girls. They’re being talked about as vulnerable groups, but there needs to be much more than that.

PRB: Why do you feel a summit on sustainable development has left population issues out of the agenda?

Woods: At Rio, the North-South deal that was struck was ‘we [the North] won’t talk about population as long as you [the South] don’t talk about consumption.’ The controversy comes from the fact that so many promises have been broken, and when talking about population, who are you really talking about? If talking about population impact, the discussion should really be about the human impact on the environment and consumption.

Zeitlin: First of all, there’s not much attention within the WSSD to consumption issues overall, and I think that’s a weakness. They’ve also tried to avoid a lot of rights issues — human rights are only mentioned less than a handful of times in the draft document for implementation. The issue of reproductive health was very controversial in Bali [the last preparatory meeting before the Summit] and continues to be one of the points for discussion. Women’s advocacy groups are going to press for reproductive health services and human rights to be included in the references to health services. Most of the references to human rights are currently bracketed, which means they’ve not yet been agreed on.

Leete: This is enormously depressing. After Rio, we had a whole chapter dedicated to population dynamics and their interaction with the environment as a crosscutting issue. To see that this was not included at all in Bali was depressing. Several delegations attempted to bring population up to no avail. The main concerns within the G-77 were coming from China and India. They didn’t want issues about their populations being linked to overconsumption. Indians are actually underconsumers compared with developed countries, and they didn’t want their large population being linked with negative externalities associated with environmental degradation.

Within the more developed countries, there were a lot of differing views and therefore there was no strong consensus on the idea that population is a causative factor in environmental management and protection. In some people’s minds, population is automatically linked to overconsumption. In some places throughout Europe the population is declining, so they’re not really concerned. As a result, there is this odd alliance that is not really supportive of a discussion of population issues in the implementation plan. Essentially, in the end, those that felt population wasn’t a major factor prevailed.

Population was also linked with the very sensitive topic of reproductive health services. This linkage is bizarre — look at population issues like population dynamics and movement or migration and urbanization. These have very important implications for environmental programs and they are quite independent of reproductive health. Issues like these have to do with poverty and nothing to do with reproductive health.

PRB: Do you think that population issues will make it onto the table at all during the actual WSSD?

Woods: No. Although I do feel that they are being addressed, they’re just not being called this. Strategically, though, this is the best thing, as if the actual word “population” were addressed, we wouldn’t get anywhere. Looking at issues like overseas development assistance, health, water — these are important and crucial strategically. Issues like desertification have implications for migration. Issues like sustainable cities and transportation are other ways to address population issues without actually calling them “population issues.”

Leete: It’s difficult to see what lies ahead now. Many groups, especially NGOs, have been mobilized because of population being excluded from the WSSD agenda, so hopefully we’ll see more population issues reflected in the final Summit outcome documents. We also hope population will gain some media attention — but we’re realistic, as there are so many mega-issues right at the top of the development agenda — like the Kyoto Protocol, ocean fishing, climate change, resources for sustainable development, trade subsidies, and debt relief — that population will not find it an easy road to make it to the top registers of journalists. This is a big uphill challenge for us all, though we do expect some serious dispatches on the issue coming out of Johannesburg.

PRB: What do you hope to be the outcome of the WSSD?

Leete: That the political declaration will include the language that the UNFPA has submitted to and is discussing with several different delegations:

“Noting the interrelations between global population, demographic dynamics, poverty, the environment and sustainable development, as emphasized in Agenda 21 and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, it is essential to maintain and strengthen efforts, including resource mobilization, that will contribute to national capacity building for strategies, policies and programmes designed to achieve population related development goals for sustainable development.”

Zeitlin: I’d like to see a lot more quantifiable measures by a certain date that you can track. Agenda 21 is, by and large, an excellent blueprint. The problem has been implementation and Johannesburg is supposed to be about addressing that, so we’d like to see more benchmarks. At the very minimum, we’d like to see the Millennium Development Goals achieved. We’d like to see action plans for implementing these goals, interim benchmarks, and a process whereby NGOs can hold governments accountable for their commitments to these goals. However, that’s accepting a world where in 2015, half of the people now in poverty will still be in trouble — this is better than now, but it’s certainly nothing to be proud of.