The question of population and development needs to be framed first and foremost as a question of equity. The articles in this issue address explicitly the matter of gender equity in families and societies, in ways that challenge the notion that Middle Eastern birth and fertility rates can be neatly attributed to Islam and Muslim cultures. Beyond this, we insist that the underlying theme is resource equity. As Philippe Fargues notes, the so-called demographic crisis in many Middle Eastern societies today is a social crisis, arising from the demand for more equitable access to jobs, schooling, housing and health care.
The UN Conference on Population and Development will be useful to the extent that it contests what Gerard Piel, in the June-September issue of Boston Review, calls the “Malthusian reflex”: issue contraceptives, finance incidental expenses, define the problem as habits rather than needs and, above all, preserve the existing hierarchies of economic and political power. The conference comes two months after the fiftieth anniversary of the Bretton Woods agreement, which established the institutional foundations of the post-World War II liberal capitalist world economic order, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This has been the occasion of much self-congratulation in the leading financial media. The global product has grown by more than 400 percent in the intervening decades. But inequality has grown even more. The richest fifth of the world control 85 percent of that product, the poorest three fifths perhaps 5 percent. The 30-to-one income ratio between the richest and poorest 20 percent in 1960 is today more than 60-to-one. (In the US, the top 1 percent of the population received 90 percent of the increase in total income over the last decade.)
One of the key points of leverage of the wealthy over the poor is debt. In 1981, when the private international banks perceived a debt crisis, Third World debt was $751 billion. In 1990, it was nearly twice that, but the “crisis” was over because the private banks had shifted risk to public institutions like the World Bank. The IMF, the World Bank and the industrial countries’ central bankers, meanwhile, have used their financial muscle to persuade their counterparts in the South that creditworthiness (thus debt repayment) and privatization are the highest virtues. (On some occasions, as when states joined the US campaign against Iraq, repayment can take the form of political collaboration.) For the millions who must live with the consequences of more than a decade of “structural adjustment,” the crisis is now.
“Structural adjustment” must, if the Cairo meeting is to have any useful impact, adjust the intolerable imbalance in the way the world product is presently distributed.