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
from U. N. Wire 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.

The 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.

The 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 trends.

"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.

"The nightmare 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 substantially trimmed.

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 correct research.

"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 immigration.

"We really shook them," he said. Cooler heads have prevailed, and Europeans are using the statistics as their own.

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.

The Population 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."

It was 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 them support.

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 countries.

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 Monthly.

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 Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

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