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After Cairo, Activists Look at New Approach _ And See Green

February 5, 1995

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ The stench sickens. The smoke of smoldering fires waters the eyes. In Manshiet Nasser’s labyrinth of crowded, muddy alleys, the garbage of modern Cairo is dumped _ and the residents eke out a meager living.

The streets of the village of 17,000 people are paved in crushed cans, splintered plastic, newspapers, spoiled food and flies. Pigs nurse litters of young in heaps of rotting lettuce, onions and banana peels. Burning refuse, just steps from tin-and-concrete huts, breathes acrid smoke into the air.

In the alleys, the barefoot ``zabbaleen″ _ literally trash people _ make their living by collecting, sorting and recycling Cairo’s garbage. They sell the paper, plastic and metal for a few cents. The food goes to the pigs, which are raised for foreigners and the Christian minority, the lone consumers in Muslim Egypt.

Manshiet Nasser, whose population has doubled in a decade, stands as an apocalyptic vision of overpopulation and poverty that the 3,500 delegates to the U.N. population conference last September in Cairo hoped to head off. It is also a window to a different future.

At the foot of the settlement, overlooking a vast compost ditch, is the Association for the Protection of the Environment, a 10-year-old group that teaches zabbaleen women reading and writing, a simple trade and health.

Practical lessons like these were recommended by the U.N. conference. They are what distinguish the meeting’s ambitious 113-page plan from predecessors in 1974 and 1984.

Now, governments and aid groups are being urged to provide reproductive health services, educate women and girls and better women’s economic status.

The assumption, corroborated by several studies, is that better educated women with economic prospects have fewer children.

It is a far cry from simple population targets that governments often tried to meet by passing out handfuls of condoms.

But it is an agenda that will take years and will undoubtedly meet considerable resistance. In essence, it calls for a change in the social conditions that have condemned most Third World women to second-class status: illiteracy, poverty, lack of education, inequality before the law and few prospects for healthy lives.

``There’s a recognition that you can no longer separate population from development and development from the environment,″ said Sally Ethelston, a spokeswoman for Population Action International, an activist group in Washington. ``If the political will and money are there, it’s a real working plan for the next 20 years.″

Activists say the success of such projects and the willingness of rich countries to give billions of dollars in aid will decide the fate of the Cairo conference’s 20-year plan. Will it gather dust in offices or pave the way for women to raise smaller families in a world where population is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050?

Nearly 25 million babies have been born in the four months since the conference, U.N. figures indicate.

The staff of 40 at the Association for the Protection of the Environment runs a rag recycling project where dozens of zabbaleen girls and women learn to weave rugs and make blankets from donated cloth after spending their morning sorting trash. They are deloused, instructed on the use of toilets, sent to literacy classes and taught about female genital mutilation _ many of the zabbaleen women are circumcised.

Workshops on family planning are held every week.

The women are paid for their work, the equivalent of a few dollars a week. After a few months of training, the group helps them set up looms in their homes and buys their handiwork.

``They’re free to come here, free to learn or not. There’s no coercion, but they’re responsible for their decisions,″ said Laila Kamel, a board member. ``Once you get them to earn money, you get a new rhythm, a rhythm that builds into their lives.″

The linchpin for the U.N. strategy and for the grass-roots projects needed to carry it out will be money _ and lots of it.

The Cairo plan urges the world’s nations to spend $17 billion a year by 2000 and nearly $22 billion by 2015 on family planning, reproductive health and AIDS prevention. Of that, rich nations are being urged to contribute one-third: $5.7 billion by 2000 and $7.2 billion by 2015.

It is an ambitious goal by any standard, requiring a nearly threefold increase in spending on population. And early signs since September’s conference are not encouraging.

``There have not been any new commitments, and in the absence of additional ones, the $17 billion goal looks more elusive than ever,″ said Steve Sinding, a member of the U.S. delegation and the director of the population program at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

In November, donor nations met in Paris to discuss the Cairo plan, but no country committed itself to more aid, Sinding said.

Nordic countries, traditionally big donors, are going through tough economic times, limiting their ability to contribute more, he said. And congressional opposition to foreign aid could endanger further increases in U.S. aid.

``Foreign aid is not the most popular spending program in the world,″ said Sally Shelton, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The gloomier forecast follows some impressive pledges before the Cairo conference.

The United States increased its population aid from $448 million in 1993 to $605 million in 1995. Japan has pledged $3 billion over seven years for population and AIDS programs. Britain has said it will boost its aid by more than 50 percent, and Germany and the European Union have promised big increases as well.

But it will take much more _ up to 43 times more for France and a whopping 125 times more for Italy, according to projections by Population Action International.

That leaves some activists uneasy, but hopeful.

``The impetus given at the conference has given the world very clear policies, very clear goals and very clear strategies to reach those goals,″ said Joesph van Arendonk, a deputy executive director at the U.N. Population Fund. ``It’s now up to the governments of the world to come up with a response.″