The 1994 International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, saw 179 governments adopt an ambitious program of action to achieve comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights for all. The Cairo Conference represented an important and pivotal shift in our approach to population and development. It transformed the world’s thinking from setting demographic targets toward employing people-centered approaches to sexual and reproductive health, grounded in human rights, equality, and dignity for all.
Yet, as we come together this week in Nairobi to mark the 25th Anniversary of Cairo, we stand at an inflection point. The sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of people around the world are under increasing threat from ideologically driven forces seeking to roll-back hard-won gains, slash funding for life-saving services and, remove references to SRHR from international agreements. We must remain steadfast in our endeavors and accelerate our efforts to ensure that the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people are respected, protected and enhanced.
But we need to go further because maintaining the status quo is not enough. We need to break down the silos in which we continue to operate and ensure we unite different sectors and actors to meet the real and complex needs of people around the world. We need to do this not least, because the grave threat of climate change, including on the health and wellbeing of people, could roll-back progress that has been made in reducing poverty and improving the lives of millions.
As I arrive in Nairobi, it is clear to me that the Population Council’s mission, to improve the well-being and reproductive health of current and future generations and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between people and resources, is more relevant now than it has ever been. The Population Council was founded in 1952 on the principle that a balance between people and resources is essential if we want to maintain human progress, to improve people’s lives and make it possible for all people to achieve their full potential. In his groundbreaking speech at the time of the first International Conference on Population and Development in Bucharest in 1974, our founder and first President, John D. Rockefeller 3rd, said “clearly, development plans must be shaped within the realities of the world as it exists today, and is likely to exist in the decades immediately ahead, not in terms of 100 years ago.”
As we look to the decades immediately ahead, the relationship between people and the planet seems more tenuous than ever. The best research, science and evidence shows we are facing a climate emergency; the impact of which is being disproportionately born by the poorest and most marginalized people, particularly women and girls in low- and middle-income countries. The people and populations who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are bearing the greatest burden. And it is clear to many of us that it is not enough to achieve development progress in the aggregate. Research and data show that the tyranny of the average means we risk missing the rising levels of inequality that exist between, and increasingly within, countries; inequalities that will be exacerbated by climate change.
So why are millions of people facing uncertain futures and being left behind in development progress? It’s not for lack of effort. It’s because around the world adolescents, women, and other marginalized groups still lack agency and bodily autonomy, lack access to quality education and health services, are excluded from social and economic development, and are most at risk from environmental shocks and stressors including climate change. And why is this? Why do they lack fundamental rights and opportunities? Because power and resources are still, and increasingly, distributed in an unequal way.
As we enter a new decade, are we prepared to ask the tough questions that will need to be answered to address growing inequality, including questions about our own lives and roles? Are we willing to change how we live and challenge our individual and institutional positions, structures and privileges so as not to reproduce existing and historic power imbalances? The solutions to the challenges we face are going to require seismic changes in business as usual. As an international NGO headquartered in the United States, we’re beginning discussions about how we can yield power and space and “shift our center of gravity” to operate in an even more globally collaborative and inclusive way through increasing resources and shifting decision-making to colleagues and partners in the places we seek mission impact.
The Nairobi Summit is the perfect time to reaffirm the world’s commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights, to accelerate action to address growing inequality and to focus attention on the interconnectedness of these issues to climate change. The Population Council remains committed to advancing the health, rights and wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized populations and achieving a humane, equitable and sustainable balance between people and resources. We continue to be singularly focused on researching and developing sexual and reproductive health products, including new contraceptives, HIV- and multipurpose- prevention technologies; conducting rigorous social and behavioral science and public health research; generating high-quality evidence; and ensuring research and evidence are used to inform policies, programs and practices. I hope you’ll join us in ensuring we collectively ask and answer the tough questions about what works, and as importantly what doesn’t work, to improve the health and wellbeing of all people, create a more inclusive world and ensure no one is left behind.