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International development and global overpopulation

Last week, we sat down with renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs to discuss the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, the set of goals aimed at reducing the poverty and hunger in the world’s poorest countries by half by the year 2015. Since the goals were established 10 years ago, however, the U.S. has not heard much about them. Sachs discussed the issue:

“It’s not an accident that the U.S. ranks lowest of all major donor countries in the world — that is the share of our income that goes to development aid. Americans will ask whether, because were so generous privately, that makes up the difference. But it doesn’t. We still rank far below other countries … We have no shortage of resources on this planet. If you want to find them, then rein in the military budgets, the tax-free accounts of billionaires or the bonuses of Wall Street bankers. The balance isn’t even remotely correct.”

Naturally, readers have had plenty to say about the U.S.’s motivations toward international development and the responsibility to aid other nations while still grappling with domestic poverty. Stephen Druesedow commented on governments acting in their own self-interest:

“The reason I think Obama, Bush and Clinton don’t mention the [Millennium Development Goals] is because America, as the military leader in the world, does not want to lend very much legitimacy to the UN, lest it should lose any of its own. This is how governments work – they are generally selfish.”

A Need to Know Facebook fan, Darrell, agreed with Sachs in saying that all the necessary resources are available, but they are not properly distributed:

“It’s not all about money … there’s enough food to go around. Just look how much food is wasted in North America alone. We super-size everything, then throw half of it out. Tons of grain goes to rot or to animal feed every year in the U.S. and Canada because no one wants to buy it (or can’t afford it). The world can provide enough to sustain us all if we smarten up about how we use the food we produce and how we supply it to other countries. It’s all there; it just has to be produced, used and distributed sensibly and fairly.”

Another fan on Facebook, Brian, shared his own experiences participating in a high school Model UN group:

“In high school, I participated in what was called “Model United Nations” and we had kids from all over the world (Zambia, Tanzania, the UK, Indonesia, etc.) taking part. I was the economic adviser for France and my resolution was on the development of Africa. The strategy was for developed nations to help develop an African country, which would in turn help develop its neighbor, then those two would help development in the third country, so on, so forth. The resolution passed the first stage. When it got to the General Assembly, it was shut down. ‘Til this day I wonder why.”

Alex pointed out that philanthropy often has its own motives for profit:

“There’s a saying that Americans can be philanthropic; you just have to pay them first … No one talks about the ratio of philanthropy to profit and not a lot of people bother to make an inquiry into it, which reveals the extent to which it’s a hands-off topic. The phenomenon is global.”

And another reader, Peggy, turned the focus back to domestic hunger and poverty:

What I find most frightening is the malnourished here in our own country. There are so many in this country who no longer have access to fresh fruits and vegetables — either because of poverty or lack of transportation. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to worry about ‘the world’ so we don’t have to worry about our own.”

It was also inevitable that many readers would point out the elephant in the room: the problem of overpopulation. The pitfalls of an ever-increasing human population and its Malthusian consequences have been a frequent subject of conversation on Need to Know’s previous segments on malnutrition in the developing world and Alison Stewart’s Climate Desk podcast on population and climate change. Reader Judy Reynolds decried the lack of attention to overpopulation in the world:

“Whatever happened to birth control? Whatever happened to concern about overpopulation? Obviously, people in these countries are having more children than they can support. What happened to the awareness that overpopulation is at the very root of ALL of the environmental degradation we have today? Why is it such a sacred cow? Why do most media never mention it? This silence about overpopulation is ASTONISHING to me.”

On Facebook, Robyn said that simply handing out birth control would not be enough to curb the problems in the developing world:

“Hand birth control to women who have no control over their bodies from the time they are young girls? Well, it might take care of the baby issue, but these young women will still be dying of AIDS and other things by the time they’re 20. But those who don’t care will say, ‘Well, another one out of their [meaning our] misery.’ That’s like kicking out the homeless and sending them to another county or country and then saying, ‘No, we have no homeless here.’”

And another reader, Julie, emphasized the role of education and her own personal philosophy:

“I only have one child and intend on getting sterilized after my next one that I intend on having in 5 years. Not popping out a ton of children is common sense. I go by the philosophy ‘I’m a woman, not a clown car.’ The key to a more stable population is education. The more educated women are, the less children they will have.”

It seems the conversation has bred two different camps, although they need not be in opposition to one another: one in favor of effective resource allocation and another in favor of education and population management. In trying to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems in improving the quality of life for the poorest communities, what strategies would you advocate? What would motivate governments to do more to aid impoverished countries, and how can they prioritize the needs of those countries with those suffering domestically?

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