Bombast in Bucharest: Report on the World Population Conference

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Bombast in Bucharest: Report on the World Population Conference

by Michael Carder & Bob Park

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 1, January 1975, p. 17 – 19

At the time of his attendance at the World Population Conference, Bucharest, in August, 1974, Michael Carder was employed by the UN Fund for Population Activities as a demographer. Bob Park is a member of the Boston SftP chapter and also interested in population. 

The planned climax for the United Nations’ World Population Year was the World Population Conference held in Bucharest, Rumania, in late August. Official, exclusive delegations composed of high level policy-makers attended from most countries. In addition several thousand others attended the prior International Youth Population Conference and the Population Tribune, a forum for non-governmental organizations, both in Bucharest. Global population control, after decades of a “softening up” process carefully planned by private movers such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, was at long last judged ready to ‘surface’ and be granted full state honors. However the debut was seriously marred by frequent outbreaks of clear thinking and militant assertion as some national delegations, unofficial delegates and many other interested people and organizations sought to counter the din of too many neo-Malthusian voices. Because most of the mass media shared the nervous optimism of the Conference planners, it was difficult to tell, from a distance, that the Conference outcome actually marked a distinct shift in attitude away from population control, and was undoubtedly a victory for the Third World in the struggle against imperialism. At the same time the Conference did not come to grips with the real issues or if it did, discussed them in outmoded categories. There was much talk of the need for urgent solutions but little of what was proposed or agreed was in any sense adequate or realistic in relation to the needs of the majority of the peoples of the world. 

Conference Background: The Population Establishment


“Population Establishment” is our shorthand term for a complex of foundations (Rockefeller Fund, Ford Foundation), private organizations (Population Council, International Planned Parenthood Federation), governmental agencies (U.S. Agency for International Development, Swedish International Development Authority) and international bodies (U.N. Fund for Population Activities.) These groups spent over $200 million on population control activities in 1972. The term also includes writers, demographers and scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, Kingsley Davis and Bernard Berelson. These organizations and individuals have some differences of opinion and approach, but have generally promoted “neo-Malthusian” ideas and pushed programs to implement these ideas. A description of these groups is found in “Rx for the People: Preventive Genocide in Latin America,” SftP, March 1973. 

A major target of the Population Establishment (see box) has been international endorsement of population control, and involvement of intergovernmental institutions (United Nations, World Health Organization, World Bank, etc.) in promoting population activities in the Third World. UN involvement in population control is important because of the supposed neutrality of the UN. Its endorsement gives scientific and political legitimation to population control, but in addition the UN can operate where the bilateral programs of the U.S. or other Western government and private agencies may be viewed with suspicion. In 1966 the General Assembly adopted a resolution mandating UN assistance to “population action programs” and in 1967 a special fund, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) was established within the UN to assist population programs. 

Despite these developments, Western hopes of obtaining international support for a global population policy were weakened as evidence grew that family planning programs were not achieving the results expected and predicted for them. National family planning programs had been the key element in Western population control strategy, the “quick technological fix” that would solve the problem. Progress had been achieved in some areas, e.g. Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. However, in the large predominantly rural populations of the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, family planning programs had made virtually no impact on birth rates. Worse still for the Population Establishment, a growing school of thought among “bourgeois” social scientists was beginning to accept what Marxists had always argued: namely that birth rates would only decline as part of a generalized economic and social transformation. This explained why in China birth rates were declining rapidly while in India, for example, they remained high. This “developmentalist” approach, as it came to be known, was backed by studies from prestigious liberal institutions like the Overseas Development council and the Population Council. These showed that in countries where the benefits of development were shared more evenly in terms of income distribution, land ownership, access to education and so on, birth rates had declined. The problem for the population controllers was how to “operationalize” these findings. The developmentalist approach — land reform, improving the status of women, income redistribution, better social services in rural areas — seemed to be in direct contradiction with the pattern of imperial control and dependent capitalist development. The response of the Population Establishment to this new challenge was to concede the importance of economic and social factors but to carry on as before, arguing that each question should be dealt with separately, with separate strategies and plans for each sector.

Youth Conference for Openers 

Planned as a youth adjunct to the World Population Conference, the International Youth Population Conference was organized through eight respectable international youth organizations (with UN or other recognized affiliations), appropriately balanced east-west. In most cases the delegates reflected the prevailing opinion of their governments. This conference brought together over 200 young people (under 30) from more than 80 countries, immediately preceding the main governmental conference, and was the first indication that attempts to consolidate popular opinion in support of population control would fail. 

Participants from Africa and Latin America immediately organized themselves into caucuses and worked out common positions. Together with youth from Eastern Europe, and a few from Western countries, they pressed for and obtained strong condemnation of imperialism as the root cause of the problems of the Third World. The participants from Asia and the U.S. (who tended to come from upper class backgrounds) who had expected to play a major role were surprised to discover that they were isolated in seeing population as a “technical issue”. Despite a strong counterattack on the last day by Asian participants and strenuous attempts by the World Assembly of Youth and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to enforce voting discipline on those participants whose fares they had paid, the Conference endorsed a strong anti-Malthusian line. 

Forum for Non-Governmental Organizations 

The “Population Tribune” was a meeting concurrent with the main Population Conference supposedly intended to provide a forum for the expression of divergent views and to facilitate “fruitful exchange”. In fact it did neither of these things. The sessions took the form of lectures or panels. sometimes with three or four speakers followed by questions. This format precluded the possibility of discussion. At the same time the majority of the speakers represented institutions active in various aspects of population control. Apart from a handful of Third World radicals, the “divergent views” represented differing approaches within the population establishment. 

The main attraction of the Tribune was a speech by John D. Rockefeller III actually acknowledging the failure of family planning and endorsing the “developmentalist” approach and the need for a reduction in consumption in the developed countries. Rockefeller is the founder and probably the single most active supporter of population control. He is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Population Council, the influential private organization created and maintained in part by the Rockefeller family largesse. Rockefeller’s Tribune speech is a significant indication that the developmentalist argument had sufficiently widespread impact to force at least rhetorical concessions from the people most responsible for development not happening. 

The World Population Conference 

When the Conference convened, the militancy of the Third World countries was immediately apparent. On the first day the head of the Chinese delegation delivered a blistering attack on the super-powers for their plundering of the poor countries and arguing that pessimistic fears over population were groundless. Many other Third World delegations, including countries with anti-natalist policies like India, Egypt and Jamaica, also pointed to the hypocrisy of the West in monopolizing the bulk of the world’s resources while claiming that the Third World is overpopulated. 

Both Pro-natalist governments in both the developed countries and the Third World, and the socialist developing countries were allied. China, Algeria, Tanzania and Cuba contested the very idea that population could be considered a problem and argued that population could not be dealt with in isolation from questions of colonialism, imperialist exploitation and world resource use. This produced accusations of ideological posturing by western delegations and media. But as the Conference progressed it became clear that the majority of Third World governments agreed on the need to spell out the changes required in international economic relations. Several western proponents of population control, notably Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden broke from the hard line taken by US delegates. Despite this the head of the US delegation, Casper Weinberger (longtime Nixon cohort, former Budget boss, and currently in charge of reducing the health, education and welfare of the American people as the Secretary of HEW) persisted in claiming the conference was going according to plan. 

The World Population Plan of Action: Before and After 

The main item on the agenda of the Conference was the proposed World Population Plan of Action (WPPA). The first draft prepared by the UN had encountered considerable opposition for its heavy emphasis on population control. To achieve consensus references to the diversity of demographic conditions and government attitudes, and stating that population policies should be an “integral part of economic and social development” were included. Yet, behind the facade of progressive sounding phrases the final draft remained essentially directed toward the limitation of births in the Third World. A reference to reduction in resource consumption by the developed countries was dropped at the insistence of the US.

To the dismay of the UN and the supporters of the plan over 200 amendments were submitted in the first two days of the Conference. The main thrust of these amendments was the elimination of the Malthusian elements of the Plan, in particular the call for a global policy of reducing births. Throughout the Plan sections were added or amended clearly reflecting the view that the solution to problems of poverty and underdevelopment in the Third World could be solved by fundamental changes in international economic relations, specifically the implementation of the declaration on a “New International Economic Order” adopted at the special session of the UN General Assembly this year. References to specific targets for fertility were deleted. Instead governments were “invited” to consider setting targets to be achieved by 1985. 

The right of couples to information and services to enable them to have the number of children they desire was upheld, irrespective of government policy. At the same time family planning as a way of altering or influencing population trends was rejected in favor of economic and social measures such as land reform, income redistribution and improving the status of women. Strong lobbying by women’s groups lead to a series of amendments which recognized the equality of women and spelled out the need for specific measures to achieve this. A key addition recommended that “the economic contribution of women in households and farming should be recognized in national economies.”

Other significant changes included reference to the need for national independence and liberation as a precondition for true development. The sections dealing with urbanization, international migration and rural development were considerably strengthened in a positive direction. 

Understandably the Population Establishment has attempted to play down the importance of the changes and has singled out the few clauses that still reflect their positions. Nevertheless the opponents of the Western approach were clearly in the majority. The intent of the changes is without question a repudiation of attempts to make population the culprit for poverty and underdevelopment and a backlash against the way in which imperialist countries have sought to promote birth control in the rest of the world. 

A Non-Malthusian Coalition 

A very significant development in Bucharest was the coming together of a number of radical critics and opponents of western-capitalist ideology and programs on population from all parts of the world. The coalition organized regular discussions throughout the conference, coordinated questioning in key sessions, pressed for the inclusion of non-Malthusian speakers on panels and held two Press conferences. We also set up a literature table which served as a focal point for the coalition. The immediate impact of these activities was limited. This was partly due to the controlled environment and partly because many of us had not met before and so were unable in the time available to resolve political differences and operate as an effective force. Nonetheless we made many useful contacts and agreed to form an international network to exchange information and research and coordinate political action. (see box.)


EMPA is an information-study-action group on population and birth control from a non-Malthusian, radical perspective. It is in the process of building a network of international contacts interested in these questions. 

EMPA: c/o 343 E. 9th St.
New York, N.Y. 10003 


The new consensus that emerged from the conference is a major and unexpected setback for the Population Establishment. Both they and the UN thought that objections would be taken care of. The change of position by Rockefeller made little difference since the conference had already questioned the very existence of a population problem as it had been defined hitherto. 

Although gratifying in some respects, the Conference once again demonstrated the absurdity of existing international structures. The majority of the delegates were part of an international elite whose lives and thinking are totally divorced from the aspirations and experiences of the people they claim to serve. The Population Establishment had planned to use the Conference to thoroughly legitimize population control. By helping to defeat this goal and by working for real development alternatives, progressive people and groups can make a significant contribution.

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