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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

NGOs Forge Ahead, but Still Lack Clout Against Population Problems

Air Date: Week of April 1, 1994

Non-Governmental Organizations — NGO's — are crucial to sustainable development projects in many countries. Host Steve Curwood talks about the growth of NGO's with Julie Fisher, author of The Road from Rio. While many NGO's have helped to ease the conditions of poverty and environmental degradation that led to their creation in the first place, lack of international funding has prevented them from tackling population-related problems on a large scale.


CURWOOD: For many involved in development and population issues, the key to sustainability is not so much what governments do as what Non-Governmental Organizations do. NGOs, as they're often called, have blossomed in the last 2 decades, bringing citizens together in ventures ranging from cooking cooperatives to international lobbying campaigns. Julie Fisher is a scholar in residence at Yale University, who describes this peaceful social revolution in her book, The Road from Rio, written after the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro 2 years ago. Fisher says the NGO movement really got started in the late 1960s.

FISHER: There was an increased availability of voluntary as well as official foreign assistance, at the same time that there was high-level unemployment among well-educated people in the developing countries. And this combination caused many of them to create what are now called NGOs, or Non-Governmental Organizations, that work with groups in villages that are promoting what we now call sustainable development. My estimate is that there are approximately 35,000 intermediate-level NGOs - by that I mean the groups formed by professionals and others - and there are probably well over 200,000 grassroots membership groups that they work with in villages and urban neighborhoods.

CURWOOD: Why the explosion of these groups?

FISHER: People are up against survival. A generation ago, maybe they could migrate to the cities. Maybe they could get a job. It was tough a generation ago, but it was not impossible. And what has happened is that no one can advance themselves simply as an individual any more. So we're talking about the destruction of the resource base, escalating poverty, and escalating numbers of the poor. So what they're discovering are ways to create an overlap between the collective and the individual interest. I'll give you an example from Peru. In Peru, there are community kitchens: in a squatter settlement or a very poor neighborhood, a group of women get together, create an organization, start buying their food in common and start cooking their food in common. Because there's no other way for their families to survive. They are on the edge of starvation, and they have found that this makes the vital difference.

CURWOOD: Now this movement is born out of desperation. Where is it headed?

FISHER: I think it's headed in a horizontal direction at the grassroots level. These organizations are almost spreading by contagion, if you will. Many times when they start it takes them a year to better their condition by only a tiny amount, but they learn that they can and that's the psychological change that's vitally important. My concern is that they're racing against time. In the long run, poverty, environmental degradation, and concern for the population issue have to be integrated, and unless the world as a whole starts paying attention to that problem, even the dramatic success of this movement is not going to be able to keep up.

CURWOOD: In your book The Road from Rio, you talk about how these grassroots organizations are going like gangbusters in the area of environmental degradation and in poverty. But when it comes to population, they're not doing so well. Why the failure in the population area?

FISHER: Because a) the international community is still struggling with this issue. The international community has put this issue on the back burner, and the international funding is the major source for the intermediate NGOs, which are in turn the major source of funding for the grassroots groups. Secondly, I think it's very tough for a grassroots group to be able to afford to set up a clinic, to be able to afford access to family planning without some outside help. In contrast, if a grassroots group wants to start a business, and they get a little help that's pretty inexpensive, they can begin to do that.

CURWOOD: How can the population question be addressed by these grassroots organizations?

FISHER: I don't think it can initially be addressed, but the results of what happens will have to depend on the grassroots level. In other words, I think what first needs to happen is a realization that the resources necessary to make a dramatic impact on fertility worldwide are fairly modest, perhaps $10 billion a year, and that would include everything that's already being spent plus some more resources. The Third World countries themselves, the governments, are spending $3 to $4 billion at this point.

CURWOOD: Next September there's going to be a world population conference in Cairo. What kind of financial commitment do you think that the world's governments will make population after this conference?

FISHER: I'm not very optimistic. I think it requires rethinking. Let's look at the US government, for example. We're talking about a $14 billion foreign aid bill for next year, approximately. Of that, for population, the largest figure I've seen is from one Congressman, who's talking about $700 million, not even a billion dollars. And yet, we're still dealing with a huge budget within foreign aid for military assistance, a legacy of the Cold War. We're still tied down to a huge percentage of the foreign aid budget going to Israel and Egypt. We definitely need to think beyond just, can we afford the money for population? We need to think about the money we're already spending, and say what are our real priorities in the long run? And I think the population issue should be way up there as a security concern.

CURWOOD: Julie Fisher is author of The Road from Rio: Sustainable Development and the Non-Governmental Movement in the Third World. Thanks for joining us.

FISHER: Thank you.



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