The real lesson of Rwanda

August 09, 1994|By Andrew J. Glass

TELEVISION brought us the horror of Rwanda. But television rarely brought us the story of pre-crisis Rwanda: the most densely packed nation in Africa. Before the onset of violence there, Rwanda was a place where decades of quietly efficient work by United Nations teams had purged pestilence -- to the point that the average woman bore eight children to maturity.

So we must ask whether the real lesson of Rwanda runs deeper than the clear need of the world community to respond with vigor to stem ethnic genocide and to prevent even more deaths in the teeming refugee camps of Zaire.

Television brought us ghastly pictures of all those dying people. Yet the world replaced -- one new life for each new death -- 50,000 cholera victims in Zaire in five hours. That part of the story needs to be told, too.

In Rwanda and elsewhere, the stork is becoming a bird of war.

In just 50 years, social scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon predicts, the Earth's population will exceed 9 billion people. Consider the collapsing benchmarks: In 1800, the human race at last reached a population of 1 billion. The second billion came along in 1930, the third in 1960, the fourth in 1975 and the fifth in 1987. The 6 billion mark will be passed in 1997.

As each new billion arrived on Earth, in ever more compact cycles, the world's economic output grew at an even faster pace. Cornucopian economists hold that the population boom forces people to use resources more wisely. They also hold that as more creative people are born, some of them will know how to solve the daunting resource problems of the 21st century.

But few Cornucopians hang out in African camps. They turn away from the ugly face of scarcity-induced genocidal violence -- a face that lies behind many of today's ethnic and land feuds.

Next month in Cairo, the United Nations will bring together leaders from more than 170 nations to talk about population growth. (Washington is sending First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.)

Reporting from Cairo will no doubt focus on the battle between the Clintonians and the Vatican over the role of contraception and the value of life.

"Debates on population quickly spark into emotion," notes a sage social scientist, Paul Harrison. "Population [issues] impinge on our deepest attitudes about sex, gender, family and ethnicity, and connect with our religious and political beliefs."

To get beyond such debates to the crux of the matter, we have to see that:

* Quality of life declines as a result of poverty and violence -- often linked to very high fertility rates -- in the so-called developing world.

* Quality of life declines as a result of very high levels of resource usage, unsustainable growth and environmental damage in the so-called developed world.

Advocates aplenty can be found for each view. But there are few leaders who can cope with both aspects of the problem as a complex whole.

Maybe some of them will show up in Cairo. Perhaps somebody there will sense that the gap between those conference halls and the hell of Rwanda needs to be narrowed.

Andrew J. Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau.

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