In July 2012, tens of thousands of people gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, called Rio+20, was a 20-year follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit. The Earth Summit had declared that the human person is at the centre of concerns for sustainable development, but it appears that in the 20 years since that conference, many people have lost sight of this principle. While it is important to preserve and care for our environment in order to ensure the survival of man, this should not be done as an end in itself but to serve the human person’s needs.
In the run up to Rio+20, environmental and health groups called for increased access to abortion and contraception for women, with the idea that giving women easy access results in sustainable development because a large human population stretches the world’s dwindling resources and damages the environment. Although many claim they are motivated by a desire to allow women to have control over their own fertility, many of these groups seem to place the environment and endangered species at a higher level than the human person, in direct contradiction to the Earth Summit’s declaration that humans should be at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.
The main debate in Rio+20 thus became whether or not to include the term “reproductive rights” in The Future We Want, the outcome document of Rio+20, a non-binding declaration that indicates a political commitment by the countries present to carry out the ideas contained therein.” Reproductive rights” is a controversial term in the United Nations world, as it is largely understood to include abortion. In the end, reproductive rights did not make an appearance in The Future We Want. During final negotiations, several countries spoke out against the inclusion of a term that is inconsistent with their national laws, values, and cultures. The Brazilian government, which had the responsibility of knitting together the results of extensive negotiations into a final document, chose not to include reproductive rights. Another controversial term, “population dynamics,” which hints at the idea that a smaller population is better for the world, was rejected.
While it is noble to talk about green jobs and the green economy, popular topics at environment-focused Rio+20, Africa needs solutions that focus on the reduction of poverty and the empowerment of its people. For those who sleep on an empty stomach, a green economy does not make sense. More so, efforts to achieve sustainable development should not deprive African nations of much needed cheap hydrocarbon based energy in exchange for renewable energy that is at the moment expensive and out of reach to meet the energy needs of these growing nations.
Good governance, access to health care, sound economic policies, an investment in human capital through access to education, and the creation of an enabling environment for investment are indispensable in attaining sustainable development in Africa. The health of mothers is also critical, as mothers are providers, educators, and stable pillars in each and every community. To reduce maternal mortality, there is a need to invest in basic health care and to provide medical infrastructure, obstetric care, and prenatal and postnatal care, with a particular emphasis on training skilled birth attendants to help each woman get through childbirth safely. Furthermore, there is a need for knowledge-based fertility education that teaches women about their bodies so that they are empowered to make decisions about family size and do not have to rely on commodities that may not correspond with their cultural values and health concerns.
African governments should also invest in their youth by providing free and quality education and creating an enabling environment that is supportive of innovation. For example, youth lack start-up capital for business ideas and should be assisted in this area by their governments. This will lead to entrepreneurship and job creation.
A proper way of dealing with climate change is to find ways to adapt to it, as we cannot alter natural cycles that have been continuous in human history. Bearing this in mind, it is not necessary to cut down the population in order to ensure sustainable development. There is more than enough to go around for everyone on earth, given that humans have always been able to use the Earth’s greatest resource—their creativity—to develop new and more efficient ways of accessing resources. A focus on decreasing the population indicates a disregard for the value and potential of each person in creating solutions to the challenges humanity faces.
Contrary to popular belief, or rather the belief of population alarmists, the world is not overpopulated; it is indeed facing a demographic crisis. Some developed nations and regions have fertility rates that are below replacement level. Western Europe, for example, has a fertility rate of 1.5, which is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. The number of elderly people is high and younger working populations are taxed heavily in order to sustain older non-working populations, whose health care costs are much higher than those of the young. Africa must learn from the mistakes of other nations instead of buying into the idea of ‘population management’. Every human person has an intrinsic worth and should not be seen as a statistic. People through their intellectual and creative abilities are the drivers of development. With so many agricultural innovations in this age, no one should die of hunger. If people are empowered and the right policies on agricultural development are put in place, Africa is capable of feeding its population and producing a surplus.