In early April, as a festering conflict was about to turn vicious in Rwanda, delegates from almost every country in the world were gathering at the United Nations in New York to draft a plan to guide population and development efforts for the next two decades. The document will set the agenda for an official U.N. conference in Cairo in September.
By the time the meeting adjourned April 22, Rwanda had become a killing field. With widespread, indiscriminate murder and the resulting stream of refugees fleeing the country, its previous population of 7.7 million had dropped by as much as 200,000.
One victim of the violence was hope -- a fragile commodity for Third World countries struggling to cope with high birth rates and scarce resources.
Rwanda is one of the world's most densely populated countries, and despite the killing -- as well as high rates of AIDS -- it is likely to stay that way. Its mild climate and gorgeous countryside have always given the country a strong hold over its people, luring many of them back after they emigrate elsewhere.
But a rapidly growing population is straining the most important resource of this agricultural economy -- land. Unlike some other densely populated areas, Rwanda's economy is based on agriculture. But land is a finite resource, making population pressures a more serious problem than in Hong Kong or Singapore.
With a growth rate of about 3 percent a year, Rwanda's population will double in about 23 years. Massacres and AIDS won't significantly change that. What these brutal forces do change is a society's ability to cope with population pressures, increasing the odds against any government's ability to feed, educate and employ its citizens.
Development specialists had previously seen Rwanda as a great example of what international aid can accomplish. Now they mourn the loss of thousands of the people whose talents and training made them essential to the success of these projects. Some even voice fears that unless current trends are reversed, the country could slide into anarchy, as Somalia has.
It would be naive to single out population pressures as the cause of the horror in Rwanda; clearly, old-fashioned thirst for power is a far more important culprit. But it would be equally foolish not to take population trends into account when analyzing the problems facing the country and trying to help it heal its wounds.
To its credit, the Clinton administration has recognized that population pressures are often a major factor in political unrest, legal and illegal immigration, environmental degradation and competition for water and other scarce resources.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, population efforts became tangled up with abortion politics, and U.S. contributions to international population organizations were a convenient target. Soon after taking office, President Clinton announced his intention to re-establish the U.S. as a leader in encouraging developing countries to pay attention to population growth and to provide contraceptives to couples who wanted to limit the size of their families.
Population programs almost never provide abortions, which are illegal in most poor countries. But abortion is an unavoidable point of contention in family-planning debates. The reason is simple: Around the world each year 100,000 women die painful deaths from unsafe, illegal abortions.
Add to those numbers the effect of the loss on the families left behind, and the tragedies are multiplied. In many poor countries, it is women who are responsible for food production. And certainly in most cultures it is the mother who is responsible for the nurture and care of young children.
Third World women seek risky abortions because they already have children and fear they cannot provide adequately for another one. Their deaths devastate an entire family.
At the New York meeting, the Vatican pressed its case against abortion and against contraception, as it has every right to do. After all, the debate about population growth is, at heart, a debate about families and human behavior, and that is an area in which people everywhere need wise guidance. The debate turns on whether people should be held to an ideal, or whether efforts to provide aid to poor countries should meet them where they are.
That debate will continue in Cairo. Meanwhile, the vulture hovering over Rwanda is a stark reminder that in too many parts of the world human life, already vulnerable, can easily turn even nastier, more brutish and unnaturally short.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.