Report back on lobbying trip to DC for Americans for UNFPA

Albert Kaufman


For the past 15 years I've chosen the issue of our world's population as my activism focus. This has led to leadership in Population Connection (formerly ZPG - Zero Population Growth) as well as activities on behalf of other groups such as the Population Media Center, VHEMT, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Sierra Club. I have led lobbying trips to Washington, DC and State Capitols in Oregon and Washington, sent a slew of letters to editors and kept up an e-mail list for the topic with about 300 subscribers (ask me if you'd like to join) for the past 12 years.

With all of the talk about climate change and how we're doomed, you'd think that there would be more mention in traditional media about the root cause of increased amounts of carbon in our atmosphere - population growth. Instead, this topic is mostly taboo, though it's mention is increasing - for instance, Al Gore does talk about it in "An Inconvenient Truth". But still, most politicians and journalists would prefer to talk about how this band-aid (wind power) or that fix (green building) will get us back to greenhouse gas levels of the 1990s. Don't get me wrong - wind power, green building, planting trees, and the million other efforts we can make to reduce carbon are all good and important. But if we continue to grow at 75 million people a year (current growth rate) we'll increase beyond our current level of 6.7 billion to who knows how high? The UN has predicted that we'll level off at 9-12 billion - but who wants to live in such a crowded world, and with everyone on the planet wishing for an existence like we have in the US - cars, eating meat, and wearing a different pair of shoes each day... we have to take population growth seriously. The UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) is one organization that takes this issue seriously and I hope someday they're as well-known as UNICEF.

Last week I flew to Washington, DC for the organization, Americans for UNFPA to lobby for more funding for the UNFPA. The UNFPA provides services to women and families in some of the least developed countries around the world. The places with the highest levels of un-met needs for contraception and reproductive healthcare. Places where many women die in childbirth because giving birth is still unsafe. During the Bush years, the US contribution to the UNFPA was $34 million, but though congress repeatedly allocated this money, Bush refused to send it on, and so our contribution for the past 8 years has been 0. This year we were asking for $50 million (this was listed in the Appropriations bill that has already passed the House and is now before the Senate). Interestingly, there was an amendment (Wicker) which would have affected future UNFPA funding which came up for a vote while we were visiting our Senators - which was, luckily, defeated 35-65. Our other "ask" was for $65 million for the 2010 budget. This was the first time of my 8 visits to lobby on Capitol Hill where something I was lobbying about was being decided that day - very exciting. During a lunch with Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey (NY) who has been a huge supporter of womens' rights, we learned that the amendment had been defeated, and it was a rousing moment for everyone in the room.

I got to meet Will White who is the new Senior Advisor to Oregon Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley. Will agreed that our issue is important and assured me that Senator Merkley would most likely support these levels of funding. After working on the Merkley campaign in 2008 (voting party, fundraiser, phone-banking, and a Merkley-pumpkin-carving party with friends) it felt fantastic to walk into his office. Though his staff is crammed into some space in the basement for now, I took pride in knowing that I, and so many others, worked hard to defeat the previous incumbant 2-term Republican schmuck from Oregon and replace him with a progressive Democrat. I look forward to great things coming from Senator Merkley and his staff.

Next up I met with staff from Oregon Democrat Senator Wyden's office - Ben Widness (Legislative Aide) and Mary Polce-Lynch, Ph.D. who is an APA/AAAS Fellow. Senator Wyden has always supported UNFPA funding, so mostly our visit to his office was to thank him for his votes and support in the past and to let him know of our request for 2010 funding. Again, we met supporters on our issue. I also went on three other Senate visits of which 2 were a little less welcoming - Ohio Republican Senator Voinovich's office (Pro-Life, retiring in 2010), NC Republican Richard Burr (foe of choice and other related issues) - my sense is that a lot of Republicans are basically against contraception, not just reproductive healthcare. I also visited NC Democrat Senator Kay Hagen's office which was a great visit. So, my ask to you is this: please find your Senator and Congressperson's contact information and write them a short note asking for $65 million to be included in the 2010 budget for the UNFPA. And, if you're feeling inspired, please become a friend and/or donate $ to the organization Americans for UNFPA. They ran a great lobby day, and are doing important work to make the world a better place.

Washington, DC really feels different to me on this visit. It's almost as if the wicked witch is gone (ding, dong the wicked witch - which old witch? the wicked witch...). Talking to staffers of the Republican Senators who do not have much powwer in DC right now was a very different experience from how things stood when they held the White House and could count on Bush to veto, well, almost everything in the end - but most things progressive, all during his term. I stood for a while in front of the White House and sent President Barack Obama positive energy - gave he and his family the thumbs up and waved. Just standing there felt different. Being in the House and Senate buildings felt different. The airport felt different. It's as if a sea change is going on - and though I missed the inauguration, I am so glad I got to visit the city during the early days of the Obama administration. Just waking up to the forward progress printed in the daily Washington Post (am so pissed that I can't get a subscription here in Portland...) was refreshing. And, I met a friend who works for a Executive Dept. agency and his tales of how his agency has been holding on for 8 years and now is so relieved at the positive change - was also refreshing.

If you get a chance to visit DC anytime soon, I would recommend it - and going to lobby for a day gives you a great feeling of empowerment and participation - some direction on what to see, and a chance to effect change in our world.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Chris Hedges makes a similar point that is well worth considering. We Are Breeding Ourselves to Extinction

  • damon (unverified)

    George Monbiot recently talked about this:

    "Cutting consumption is more important than limiting population" Population growth is but one factor contributing to pressures on resources and environmental damage. So why is it a hobby horse for so many?

    moneygraphs: Until the recession struck, the global rate of economic growth was 3.8%. The world's governments hope and pray that we'll be back on this track as soon as possible. Population, of course, is one of the components of economic growth, but the global population growth rate is currently 1.2%.

    It's responsible, in other words, for one-third of normal economic growth. The rest is supplied by rising consumption. Consumption, on this measure, bears twice as much responsibility for pressure on resources and ecosystems as population growth.

  • SCB (unverified)

    Classic elitism.

    You never explain in the post what UNFPA is until the bottom of the second paragraph, and then it doesn't match up. UNFPA is the United Nations Population Fund. Shouldn't that be UNPF?

    So I go to the web link. And on the first page, they don't explain what UNFPA is, I have to find a second page.

    Odd, very odd, that a group would like to be called by initials, without any up front recognition of what they do or are.

    I guess we are just supposed to know....

    Sounds like another great group. Hope it does well, who ever they are.

  • (Show?)

    Well, this just in, the $50 million was approved.

    Victory in Washington for Women Everywhere

    We are excited to share excellent and inspiring news with all of you. Today, the U.S. Congress passed the 2009 federal budget, including a $50 million contribution to UNFPA! This is a $10 million increase over last year’s budget, thanks largely to you, the collective voices of Americans for UNFPA.

    President Obama has signaled his intention to restore this funding to UNFPA so this is truly a great day for women around the world.

    After seven years in which no U.S. government funds were released to UNFPA – a period of time which saw the deaths of over 3 million women from preventable complications of pregnancy or childbirth – we will now, as the President said, "join 180 other donor nations working collaboratively to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.”

    This return of U.S. support to UNFPA’s work is thanks to our champions in Congress but also to you, the tens of thousands of Americans for UNFPA who have proudly stood up for women during the seven years when our government did not. Your letters, emails, calls, signatures and visits to Washington helped to pave the way for the restoration of this funding, and your donations signaled that Americans care about the world's poorest women.

    For over ten years, Americans for UNFPA has worked to educate our government and our citizens about the life-saving work of UNFPA. Our struggle on behalf of women is not nearly complete: $50 million is an important step in the right direction, but still far short of meeting the global need for programs that train midwives, provide modern contraception, and prevent the spread of HIV.  Your continued support of Americans for UNFPA increases engagement among Americans for the world's women.

    Thank you for standing with us.                         Anika Rahman, President

  • John (unverified)

    Damon references an article by George Monbiot. Looking at it, I'd say it was completely, convincingly refuted by the commenters on his site. Among other fundamental errors, he totally misses the point that it's not just ongoing population growth that matters, but the staggering size to which the population has already grown. We're so far into overshoot that we face a terrible problem apart from any additional growth.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    I'm speechless.

    Does this mean it's OK to discuss our various tax subsidies vis a vis population growth without being called "anti-family"?

  • Nita Parker (unverified)

    It was great to meet such a diverse group of people.Lobbying was an amazing and humbling experience.

  • Brian C. (unverified)

    Some good points about excessive procreation and consumerism. Unfortunately most of Earth's citizens disagree as clearly demonstrated by their behavior. It's also an absolute certainty that the human race will become extinct sooner or later. Only a matter of when & how. I also have zero doubt that our human herd will be culled several times before then. Best we can do is work toward that elusive balance between the extremes. Protecting our habitat while still being able to enjoy our existence for that blink of an eye duration we are here. It's all in my new book "Life is wonderful but were all fucked." ;)

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Agreed, Brian. In the meantime, is domestication the best metaphor for conceptualizing our management of the human population? Aren't many social ills caused by the same factors that cause social ills in the food supply chain? Aren't many poor social policies today a mirror of commercial farming practices?

    I think the thread running through all this is that domestication is an ancient, creaking technology. It was really hot when there were 100,000 humans worldwide, but we've moved on, and it needs to as well. Nature is not simply wild or civilized, with mediation only happening through domestication.

    I think the next major phase will be when humans recognize that their activity has supplanted any kind of natural process or 'plan', and take up human influence on the environment as their ownmost possibility.

    In the meantime, most governments have no plan for the future that would work without an increasing population. Before these ideas can get wider acceptance, it will likely require that gov have models for the future that don't fail as soon as population levels off, or heavens forbid, declines.

    You can make an argument that humans naturally form peaceable societies, with extensive trading relations. Class consciousness, elitism, conflict and warfare only come once the population has passed a saturation point. We live with those probs every day, and have convinced ourselves that it's a part of the human condition, because we accept that people will breed until they can't, regardless of the way it systemically changes the society.


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