Bank President James Wolfensohn opened the session with some introductory remarks about Dr. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. He noted Dr. Obaid was the first Saudi Arabian woman to receive a government scholarship to study at a university in the United States where she received a PhD. in English Literature from Wayne State University. She has had a distinguished career within the United Nations helping governments to establish women and development programs, and is respected leader in the international community forging a new global population agenda. In her work at the work of UNFPA, Dr. Obaid has stressed population trends affect every aspect of sustainable development, including poverty, urbanization, HIV/AIDS, aging, environmental protection, gender issues, and reproductive health. UNFPA works with decision makers to clarify these linkages and to integrate them into planning and policy. In her speech, Wolfensohn said Dr. Obaid would examine the complex linkages between population, poverty and environment and how population might affect the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and poverty reduction. Changes in the make-up of the world’s population are unprecedented in their size and pace, especially among the youngest and oldest age groups, and in the migration from rural areas to the cities. Wolfensohn described her as a "kindred soul" in their mutual interest in gender issues in development.
Dr. Obaid said that reproductive issues are the direct impact on achieving the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, maternal and child mortality, and HIV/.AIDS. She believes seven of the MDG s cannot be achieved without addressing population and reproductive health issues. She said a global strategy is needed. A key conference on the issue in Cairo focused on women s rights. It mirrored the work of the UNFPA which seeks to insure universal access to reproductive health, support capacity building in population programming, and promote awareness of population issues and mobilize resources from the political community.
She called it a visionary agenda and acknowledged that discussion of population issues within the UN were divisive. But Dr. Obaid said she was encouraged by current trends which include more women are choosing to have smaller families and the rate of slowing population growth. She characterized these trends as a "success". She noted research from 1960 through 1995 which indicates that at the national and household levels slowing population growth encourages economic growth, while larger families exacerbate poverty by stressing meager resources.
Dr. Obaid noted a half million women in the developing world die annually due to pregnancy-related complications, and 15 to 30 times that number have serious health complications. She called it a public health failure, and said family planning is central to lowering mortality for children under five years of age. She said US AID estimates more than $7 billion in annual economic loses from the potential productivity of women who die.
HIV/AIDS claims four million children each year and experts consider the pandemic still in its early stages. Life expectancy is Africa has dropped alarmingly. In Botswana, one in three adults is infected and life expectancy has dropped to 36 years of age. The famine in southern Africa has also been exacerbated by the pandemic. Dr. Obaid said it cannot be business as usual, and called upon the international community to step in with a focused, coordinated response, otherwise these societies would be condemned to die. Such an outcome, she said, would be a crime against humanity. She said the fight against AIDS must be a multi-sectoral approach. Key interventions must include counseling for women, keeping children HIV free and condom use. She noted women are five times more likely to be infected than men, so women must be empowered to say "no" to sex.
To address these issues, she believes, gender issues must become an integral part of the poverty analyses, and seeks to have the UNFPA work more closely with institutions such as the Bank on national strategies. She said more attention needs to be paid to population issues since the demographic trends are compelling. There will three billion more people in the developing world in 2050, many driven to the cities due to employment opportunities. Much of the poverty is amongst the elderly and in the developing world, social safety nets are almost nonexistent. Conversely, populations trends are for the average age in many societies to be decreasing, resulting in growing populations of youths living in poverty. If the developed world remains passive, then social unrest is inevitable.
Returning again to the issue of achieving the MDG s, Dr. Obaid said increasing financial flows, and debt relief efforts channeled into education, family planning, population and poverty reduction efforts are critical. She also noted the importance of preserving culture within societies in the developing world. She said culture counts, and should not be destroyed by development. She closed by stating human rights must also be protected when implementing the MDG s. The floor was then opened to questions from the audience.