Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make
[the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."
Fixing The Security Council (June 16, 2003)
"If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point: the council needs fixing."
Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."
U.N. Notebook | June 23, 2003
AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—Over the
next few months, the U.N. Population Division, which often works
behind the scenes, will be marshaling its resources to warn publicly
that the future of southern Africa, once a hope for the continent,
increasingly rests on one four-letter word: AIDS.
The political consequences are becoming more than obvious as
predictions get grimmer. There is, for example, a real
possibility that some once-promising African nations, their middle
classes measurably savaged by the epidemic, will have to seek their
teachers, lawyers, even farmers and civil servants outside
their borders, perhaps in the same European countries that colonized
the African landscape a century or two ago.
In planning for the consequences of a long-running crisis, in
this case in health, numbers count, especially in democracies, where
smart political management of other issues also—religion,
ethnicity or social tensions created by bulging age groups—can be
the key to averting catastrophe.
How many Shiites live in Iraq? How many Muslims in
India? How many Christians or Buddhists in Indonesia?
Tutsi in Rwanda? Kurds in Turkey? Gypsies in
Slovakia? Teenagers in Bangladesh? Old people in
Italy? How much more viciously has AIDS slashed the longevity
of Africans than anyone could have predicted?
The U.N. Population
Division is the world's keeper of statistics. A backwater
during the Cold War, when ideology was used to paper over many
fundamental human differences and challenges, the Population
Division has come into the spotlight in recent years. Ethnic
wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make
it one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat.
statistics it produces are not always welcomed by member nations,
though they provide most of the data (occasionally tweaked in New
York to counterbalance the wishful thinking of governments).
Sometimes even U.N. agencies are not happy with the cold
calculations, said Joseph Chamie, the division's director.
Accused recently of not supporting one agency's cause, he had to
remind officials that his field was demography, not advocacy.
"I have no cause to support," he said he told them.
catastrophic toll HIV-AIDS is taking on lifespans in Africa,
jeopardizing the continent's future, will be the subject of a
brainstorming session in early September, one of a series of
meetings and reports in the next few months on some new and
potentially controversial findings on world population
"It's devastating, the impact HIV-AIDS is having on
these countries," said Chamie, adding that the newest figures will
reverse recent hopes that some hard-hit countries were poised to
make real progress. "In the new revision of our projections we
have more countries where populations are going to decrease because
the epidemic has become worse," he said. "We had South Africa
and Botswana stagnating and then recovering but now we have them
going down. Life expectancy in Botswana is dropping to about
30 at birth." In the 1995-2000 period, Botswana's life
expectancy was 56.
"We're going to have hundreds of millions
of people dying from AIDS prematurely," he said, adding that these
numbers dwarf the numbers of deaths from most other epidemic
diseases and decades of wars. He fears the possibility that a
new disease, like the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS,
will find a way into African countries.
is if SARS hits Africa," Chamie said. "If SARS hits the
AIDS-ravaged countries, you could have an enormous amount of
death." The pressure on health systems could be crippling,
along with damage to economies already under strain. In Asia,
where the disease first struck, economic growth forecasts have been
In an era of open hostility in
Washington to the United Nations, the Population Division has the
rare distinction of getting solid support from American politicians
on the left and right, including officials in the Bush
administration, said Chamie, 58, a multilingual American of Lebanese
ancestry with a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of
Michigan. He chalks up his team's sustained credibility to the
demographer's abhorrence of fuzzy social science and politically
"Of the social sciences, the only science
is demography—everything else is social," he said. "We have
methods. We have techniques. We have information.
There are balancing equations. You can only change your
population through births and deaths and migration. You can
count the people, you can know where they are living. There is
no argument about what the facts show. Pensions, health care,
school construction, the labor force—all that is mathematically
determined. We can anticipate in 50 years who will be the
elderly, because they are already born. We also can anticipate
how many are going to die."
Chamie got into trouble with the
Europeans a few years ago by looking at their low fertility rates
and aging populations and calculating that Europe would have to
become more immigration-friendly, and thus more like the United
States in racial diversity, to maintain a viable labor force.
Hot-headed Europeans, caught off guard by Chamie's bold report,
accused him of playing to neonationalists opposed to
"We really shook them," he said. Cooler
heads have prevailed, and Europeans are using the statistics as
The debate surrounding migration—including
trafficking in people and illegal immigration—has gathered enough
momentum that Secretary General Kofi Annan recently
commissioned a report by an adviser, Michael Doyle, a Princeton
scholar about to join the Columbia University faculty, on
establishing an international commission to examine the phenomenal
growth in migration and how to manage it.
Division is preparing a report for the General Assembly on the
feasibility of a global conference on migration. A number of
developing nations are prepared to argue for the free movement of
people just as many richer nations are tightening entry
requirements. Chamie is doubtful that such a meeting will ever
take place on this explosive issue. "We've surveyed the
governments," he said. "They do not want a global
conference. The Arabs, many of the Asian countries, the
Europeans, the Americans are in agreement on that."
Chamie's team of demographers, studying unexpected fertility
declines in unlikely countries, who challenged assumptions about
automatic relationships between religion and birthrates.
Putting solid evidence behind a campaign for more power for women to
control their reproductive health, Chamie concluded that in
conservative societies dominated by religions as radically different
as Catholic and Hindu—Italy and India—women, given the chance,
were defying tradition and "talking fertility down." That message
was not well received by some population and family planning groups,
which said it seemed to discount their importance and could cost
Then there is urbanization—not a new topic
but one in need of updated statistics. "Urbanization doesn't
sort of grab people," Chamie said. "But we're coming to a
point now where half the world's population is living in
cities. Disease patterns are affected; disease is transmitted
much faster. The economic activities change. The living
arrangements change. Household formation changes. The
value of children changes."
"This summer we're going to do a
long-range projection, and for the first time ever in our 57-year
history, we're going to do it by country," he said. Previous
surveys were done by region, glossing over stark differences among
The statistics have consequences, he said,
particularly those that show which countries are likely to have
problems with large numbers of restless urban youth. While the
United States sees progress in its war on terrorism, Chamie looks at
his figures and sees hotspots where easy recruitment of militants
among restless youthful populations still has years to run.
This message won't be popular with a lot of governments.
Chamie shrugs that off.
"We go beyond what governments want
to hear," he said.
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All