A New Look at Old Problems

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Last week, my fellow interns and I had the opportunity to attend WYA’s Advocacy Academy.  The Advocacy Academy first came to life in Kenya. It was taught to law students and lawyers there due to the increasing violations against the dignity of the human person in policies and programs. It was brought to the WYA headquarters here in New York, because it is important that all interns and staff who represent the organization have a comprehensive understanding of WYA’s beliefs in order to effectively express them at the UN.

It was very interesting for me to dive into a curriculum and learn about international law from a human dignity standpoint. It’s like putting on “dignity glasses”, where you try to scope out parts of international documents that do not respect the intrinsic dignity of the human person. There is definitely a mainstream approach of how certain world problems are tackled, and looking back at what I learned in the academic world and looking at those concepts with my “dignity glasses” was uncomfortable at first. It was like my worldview was flipped. Oftentimes, when I feel there is only one viewpoint, I become doubtful and worried that the information is being filtered through tunnel vision. At moments of the academy I found myself Googling facts to support what I was learning because all my life I had been taught the opposite without even knowing it.

What I’m particularly referring to is the person-centered approach in Sustainable Development. As a child, I remember seeing images of starving children in Africa, and a repetition of the theme “too many people on this planet,” in my coursework. When we hit 7 billion people in 2011 this fear of an over-populated world continued to creep up on me. Although the realities of 7 billion people in our world, is very real, it is our choice on how we decide to view this in the Sustainable Development dialogue. We can look at it as a “too many people” issue, an approach that views people as the problem, or we can approach it in a “person-centered” viewpoint where people are seen as the solution.

At first, as I was mentioning before, I was skeptical of this idea because I felt that we were just trying to see what we wanted to see; I wasn’t completely convinced that a decrease of population was not one of the main solutions to a more sustainable world. What was important to recognize was that we weren’t denying the reality of the situation; we are trying to shine light on an alternative method. We all wanted a sustainable world and that has automatically been put next to population control, and it’s important to see other alternatives, ones that are more empowering to the person.

Amidst my doubts, I realized that approaching Sustainable Development through population control is quite problematic. Saying that the person is the problem or that humans being are burdens on the planet, belittles the person to being viewed only as an extra mouth to feed, someone who further depletes the world of its resources. Furthermore, population control policies are primarily aimed at developing countries. Pointing these agendas at these specific countries can potentially be about who’s worthy of being alive or being born, and which families are allowed to have children.

During the Advocacy Academy we looked at an alternative method, a person-centered approach. This is looking at the human person as a resource and as a solution rather than the problem. The famous “bet” between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon was introduced during this part of the training. Ehrlich and Simon decided to look at 5 precious metals over time, and each put a bet on those metals. Ehrlich bet that as population increases and resources get more scarce the cost of the metals would increase, whereas Simon bet that although the population would increase people would invent technologies to mitigate resource scarcity and the cost would decrease. By the end of the allotted time, Ehrlich mailed Simon a check of the difference of the precious metals since the beginning of the bet; the price had indeed decreased.

Julian Simon’s idea is very critical in this person-centered approach of Sustainable Development. Simon says that as population increases, the immediate effects would indeed be negative because resources would be strained as demand increases. However, over time it is apparent that humans create innovative methods and technologies to address the problem. He also argues that there is a very explicit link between government corruption, poverty, and famine. The solutions of a person-centered approach are about focusing on infrastructure, skills training, professional opportunities, environmental stewardship, a good non-corrupted government, and a natural steadying of population growth.

The Demographic Transition Model is also a good resource to support this person-centered approach. This model illustrates how countries move from high birth and death rates, to low birth and death rates. When countries develop, oftentimes the security incentive for larger families decrease; some of these reasons may be due to increased technology, communities moving away from agricultural work, as well as lower infant mortality rates. As a result, families may choose to have smaller family sizes. It is important to look at a holistic approach to Sustainable Development. A natural slowing of population growth means that families are not coerced nor pressured to decrease family size, instead, they have informed choice and their cultural and religious values on family are respected.

It is vital to understand and respect the culture and religions of countries when formulating Sustainable Development policies. Most important of all, the value and potential of a human person cannot be dismissed in these discussions.

Monica Kim is an intern for WYA North America