Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very grateful to the Irish Family Planning Association for inviting me to launch this year’s UNFPA State of Population Report.
I have worked closely with the Family Planning Association over many years. It is particularly gratifying therefore, in my role as Minister of State for Trade and Development, to have the opportunity to work with United Nations Population Fund – the UNFPA – which is the Irish Family Planning Association’s international partner, on vital reproductive health issues at a global level.
I am also delighted to be sharing this platform with Jacqueline Mahon of UNFPA and Dr. Nata Duvuury of NUI Galway. I know that Nata in particular has been a hugely important collaborator for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade over the past few years, both through her work with us in the Joint Consortium on Gender based Violence and on Ireland’s National Action Plan for the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution1325 [thirteen twenty five] on Women, Peace and Security. Thank you Nata for the deep commitment and engagement you have shown on the widest range of issues related to women and development.
Jacqueline, I know, is a key advisor of the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, on global health issues and is at the forefront of UNFPA’s work to ensure that every woman has access to the reproductive health services she needs in order to plan her family and to have health and safe pregnancies and births. The audience here will need no reminder that universal access to reproductive health is one of the Millennium Development Goals that is lagging furthest behind target. I am very proud therefore, that it is an Irish woman that is so central to the UN’s efforts to catalyse the efforts of the international community to reach this goal by 2015.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
In six days time, we will mark the moment at which the world’s population is estimated to reach 7 billion.
It is a daunting prospect. The challenges that it creates are complex and multi-faceted. Every aspect of development is linked to it - health, education, food security, creating sustainable livelihoods, responding to climate change, democratization and good governance. All are directly affected by population growth. The same goes for broader global trends: urbanisation, migration, gender equality and women’s empowerment, global economic growth and employment.
However, it is important to emphasise that the demographic challenges that face us are not simply linked to high population growth rates. As sub-Saharan Africa struggles with the impact of high fertility rates, many parts of Europe, as well as a number of countries in the Americas and in Asia, are grappling with the implications of low fertility rates and rapidly aging populations.
The 2011 State of the World Population report outlines these challenges powerfully and eloquently. Importantly, it also makes a persuasive case that they can, and should, be addressed positively, and comprehensively. This may seem obvious, but it is a case which, increasingly, has to be made in a proactive way.
Regrettably, some of the recent media commentary in Ireland on this issue has contended that attempts to reduce poverty are doomed to failure because of rapid population growth, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, it is sometimes asked, why should we bother?
With 80 million people being added to the world each year, the argument goes, it is pointless to try and feed the hungry, educate children, save lives though basic healthcare interventions, create and support sustainable livelihoods. The numbers are just too overwhelming. Better to turn away from an intractable problem and stop throwing good money after bad.
Let me say, that as the Minister charged with overseeing Ireland’s development aid programme, I absolutely reject this simplistic line of argument. What it ignores is the reality that rapid population growth alone is not the cause of poverty. Poverty itself also drives unsustainably high population growth.
If we want to address the challenges posed by a rapidly expanding world population, we have to address the root causes of that expansion. As the 2011 report so succinctly explains, in the poorest countries, extreme poverty, food insecurity, inequality, high death rates and high birth rates are all linked in a vicious cycle.
The challenge is to break that vicious cycle. And this is eminently possible. We know what it takes. Investing in health, particularly sexual and reproductive health, and in education for women and girls is fundamental.
In country after country, women and girls who have completed at least primary school education choose to have fewer children. Governments need to facilitate that choice by ensuring access to the information and means that women need plan the size, timing and spacing of their families. As the 2011 report so clearly states, governments that are serious about eradicating poverty should also be serious about providing the services, supplies, and information that women, men and young people need to exercise their reproductive rights.
Providing women with access to reproductive health care is not just an end in itself. It can have a transformative effect on women’s vulnerability to poverty, hunger and economic and social discrimination. The choice to have smaller families allows for greater investment in each child’s health care, nutrition and education, improved productivity and better long-term prospects—for women, their families and their societies.
It is the creation of such a virtuous cycle that Irish Aid consistently aims to support through all our work. In 2010 alone, Irish Aid provided €145 million in support to the health and education sectors in our programme countries and through global level partnerships.
Specifically on reproductive health, UNFPA has been an invaluable partner for Irish Aid in our efforts towards contributing to achieving the goal of universal access to reproductive health by 2015. Since 2006, we have channelled almost €30 million through UNFPA in support of this goal.
I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA’s new Executive Director, earlier this year. He is proving to be an inspirational and transformative leader and Irish Aid has been proud to work with him as a member of UNFPA’s Executive Board throughout 2011.
UNFPA will continue to be a priority partner for Irish Aid and we look forward to work ever more closely with them in them in the run-up to the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals. As I noted earlier, MDG 5, which focuses on maternal mortality and access to reproductive health, is one of the goals that is furthest off target. 215 million women worldwide still lack access to safe, effective and affordable forms of contraception and up to half a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth each year. This is, quite simply, unacceptable.
The international community has made real progress on many of the MDG goals in the last ten years; school enrolment and child health has improved, child deaths have been reduced, access to clean water and sanitation has been expanded and progress towards meeting targets for the prevention, treatment and care of HIV and AIDS has been substantial.
We need to replicate this progress in the area of reproductive health. The 2011 report makes the case that it is imperative that we do so. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to restate Irish Aid’s commitment to doing everything we can to support this aim.