This fall marked the first anniversary of the largest gift in the history of American philanthropy—a billion-dollar pledge by a single benefactor to be paid out over ten years. Unlike the overwhelming majority of charitable activities, which concentrate on local or domestic concerns, this gift—the most highly-publicized philanthropic initiative of the post-Cold War era—is not just international but positively global in its focus and aspiration. The initiative in question, of course, is Ted Turner’s promise to the United Nations to underwrite a host of UN projects and related causes of his own choosing.
Considering Turner’s longstanding view of the global condition, it should surprise no one that a major thrust of his United Nations Foundation has been to support programs to slow world population growth and reduce global fertility levels—to promote around the planet what Turner himself calls “population control.”
The outspoken Turner has been warning the public for years that mankind is already in the midst of a dire worldwide population crisis, and that burgeoning human numbers threaten to overshoot the earth’s environmental “carrying capacity” and to provoke a global Malthusian catastrophe. Just after Turner unveiled his extraordinary gift to the United Nations, he explained that his deep concern about the world population situation was the stimulus for this act of generosity. “Overpopulation,” he told the Village Voice in October 1997, ranks as “the single most important issue facing mankind today.” And to achieve the balance between global resources and population that Turner envisions, it will be necessary not merely to stabilize the world’s population at some future date, but to embark upon a prolonged and dramatic campaign of planetary de-population. Ideally, he says, “what we need to have for 100 years is a [worldwide] one-child policy. . . . If everybody voluntarily had one child for 100 years, we’d basically be back to two billion people, and we could do it without a mass die- off. . . .” Adds Turner, “we’ve been stupid to let the world’s population get to six billion.”
To head the new foundation, Turner has hired former Senator Timothy E. Wirth [see Philanthropy interview, May-June 1998], a fervent environmentalist who served most recently as Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and as the Clinton Administration’s point man on world population and U.S. foreign policy on the environment. Like Turner, Wirth attributes a vast array of contemporary problems to the modern era’s surge of population growth: in 1993, for example, he reportedly even argued that the gruesome ethnic conflict then unfolding in Bosnia was due to “overpopulation” (Turner, for his part, declared to U.S. News that “Tim Wirth shares my vision of the future.”)
And while the United Nations Foundation’s very first round of grants supported a number of more traditional humanitarian UN undertakings (such as combating parasitic infections in Africa and helping landmine victims), over a third of those funds—$7.8 million of the $22 million awarded—were earmarked for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the ardently anti-natal UN agency that strove to establish targets for future global population growth at the UN’s 1994 Cairo conference. (UNFPA received an additional $4.3 million in the UN Foundation’s September 1998 round of grants.) Earlier, as described in the New York Times, UNFPA honored the chief of China’s coercive “one child per family” campaign with a special prize for “the most outstanding contribution to the awareness of population questions.”
Billionaires Who Give Too Much
Given Mr. Turner’s evident delight in his own celebrity, and his relish for his own maverick image, one might suppose that his enthusiasm for attempting to redirect the world’s demographic trajectory would stand out as a singular, eccentric predilection. Such a conclusion, however, would be mistaken. Among America’s very richest self-made men today, Turner’s passion for curbing world population growth (and especially population growth within the Third World) is closer to being the general rule than an exception.
Upon his death in 1996, for example, David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard computer empire, left the bulk of his estate to the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, an institution whose mission includes “population” activities.
Curbing global population growth is a priority, the foundation’s annual report explains, because “rapid population growth in much of the world poses challenges to the future of civil society.” (At the end of 1997, Packard had an endowment of $9 billion, and ranked as America’s third largest foundation.) Not to be left out, Packard’s partner William Hewlett has similarly endowed a nearly $2 billion foundation, one of whose main program areas is likewise population. According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s 1997 annual report, “Rapid population growth continues to be a significant worldwide problem. . . .”
Perhaps most portentously, though, both of America’s very richest men have indicated that they intend to devote some of their great wealth to the international population control movement.
Warren E. Buffett, the extraordinary investor whose successes with his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. have netted him a fortune recently estimated by Forbes at almost $30 billion, has vowed that he will leave most of his money to charity upon his death, and according to fellow tycoon Ted Turner, “[Buffett] said he’s going to give his money away when he dies for population control.” While Buffett has to date avoided serving as a spokesman for population activists, Barron’s reports that he “has made no secret of the fact that he considers overpopulation to be a serious threat to the future of the world.” And while Buffett’s present ventures in philanthropy are still marginal in relation to his resources, more than $7 million of the nearly $10 million disbursed in fiscal year 1997 went to grants in the area of “reproductive health and population.”
The world’s wealthiest man, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, also apparently lays awake at night worrying about unchecked global population growth. In 1995, Gates cautioned that “world population growth and our ability to balance human needs with limited resources will be an important challenge of the next century.” That same year, the Gates family vacationed with the Buffetts in China, and according to Bill’s father, William Gates Sr., they “made a point of visiting a family planning center” there. That exposure apparently enhanced Gates’s interest in programs to limit fertility in underdeveloped countries.
Since then the new William H. Gates Foundation had awarded two grants, totaling about $2 million, to a UNFPA program. Those commitments, however, promise to be merely a beginning. Barron’s reports that the Gates Foundation had projected 1998 expenditures of $8 million to $9 million on population activities—already making it the eighth largest contributor to population causes within the foundation world. With a personal fortune currently estimated at more than $50 billion, Gates is certainly in a position to become an even more influential presence within the population field if he so chooses.
Family Planning’s Postwar Boom
Yet our current multi-billionaires’ philanthropic fascination with efforts to curb world population growth, as it happens, is nothing new. To the contrary: it represents merely the latest chapter in an eleemosynary tale that extends back nearly half a century.
Ever since the early 1950s, America’s largest and most prestigious foundations have been in the front lines of the struggle to “defuse” what Malthusian activists termed “the population bomb.” In no small part, the structure, outlook, and policies of today’s “population movement”—the great international edifice that has been erected purposely to reshape the world’s demographic patterns, and most especially to alter fertility levels in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—trace their lineage to institutions, initiatives, and individuals sponsored by the community of American foundations.
For American foundations, unfortunately, this is a decidedly mixed legacy. For while the philanthropic community can point to a number of incontestably beneficial projects from the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent on “the world population crisis,” the “population movement” today stands as a deeply troubled venture.
The contemporary international effort to limit world population, in the language of contemporary pedagogy, is “challenged”: politically, intellectually, and sad to say, even ethically. Given their deep involvement in this effort, American foundations necessarily share responsibility for its current condition.
Before the Second World War, only a handful of American activists (Margaret Sanger among them) had been crusading for an international birth control campaign; for the most part, their missives had been ignored by the general public and opinion leaders alike. Following World War II, however, their call for international family planning efforts began to enjoy a more favorable reception. A number of factors may be adduced to explain this change, but the most important of these may be changes in the world population situation itself.
With the restoration of international order and the international application of recent advances in medicine and public health, the postwar world’s death rate was, suddenly, plunging. And while information for many regions was spotty at best, demographers soon realized that the population of the earth suddenly was growing at a much more rapid pace than it had ever done in the past. No less significant, perhaps, was the fact that the pace of population growth for what were then termed “backward areas”—Asia, Africa, and Latin America—had come to surpass the population growth rate for Europe and North America, possibly for the first time since the “Age of European Exploration” had commenced several centuries earlier.
“Hitler Really Gave Eugenics a Bad Name”
To convince American philanthropy to engage against the “world population crisis,” the activists had to overcome profound and widely shared reservations within the donor community. The most important of these was the still-controversial perception of birth control practices themselves. In the early postwar years, artificial contraception continued to be regarded (to paraphrase author James Reed) as more of a “private vice” than a “public virtue.” Discomfort with, or opposition to, modern contraceptive methods was by no means confined to Catholic religious circles: as the scholar Phyllis T. Piotrow has noted, not until months before World War II “did the American Medical Association endorse birth control at all and then only for therapeutic reasons.”
Another reason for reluctance, perhaps less vividly remembered today than just after World War II, concerned the birth control movement’s pedigree. While the pre-war champions of population control represented a variety of ideologies (socialist and early feminist among these), many supporters were devotees of eugenics. These eugenicists proposed to use sterilization and other means of family limitation to improve the “quality of the human race” by restricting the breeding of those of “inferior stock.” Once the Nazi horrors had been fully uncovered with Germany’s defeat, of course, it was impossible to speak in polite society in such a manner again. (When I worked at the Rockefeller Foundation nearly 20 years ago, a long-time staffer told me of a prominent, early population activist who, during a visit to the foundation lamented that “You know, Hitler really gave eugenics a bad name.”)
Such were the sensitivities of the issue, in any case, that in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Rockefeller Foundation flatly rebuffed a series of entreaties to enter the population field, even though those entreaties came from none other than John D. Rockefeller III—the benefactor’s son, and a foundation trustee in his own right. In 1952—the year that he became chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation’s board of trustees—Rockefeller finally helped to establish the Population Council (to this day the research flagship of the population movement) from his personal fortune.
In 1952, the Ford Foundation also made its first population grant—a $60,000 gift to the Population Reference Bureau. According to Oscar Harkavy’s authoritative book, Curbing Population Growth, the grant was docketed primarily to appease two trustees’ wives who happened to be, in the words of an interviewee for the oral history of the Ford Foundation, “Planned Parenthood nuts.” Whatever its motivations, though, that grant marked the advent of the American foundation world’s involvement with the “world population crisis.”
Unrestrained Growth (in Grant Outlays)
Like unchecked population growth itself, the Ford Foundation’s outlays multiplied geometrically from this modest base. By the late 1950s, the Ford Foundation had dispensed its first million-dollar grant for population activities (a $1.4 million gift to the Population Council). In 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation established a population program of its own. The entry of America’s two premier foundations into world population issues proved to be a leading indicator for public action, and presaged an amazingly swift turnabout of the official U.S. posture toward the “world population problem.”
In 1959, reacting to a proposal for U.S. aid for international family planning, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had declared that he “could not imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity.” But by 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson was asserting that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth,” and urging action “on this fact.”
This volte face, of course, could not have occurred without the revolution in American attitudes toward birth control (and more generally, toward sexuality) already then underway. But it was largely propelled by world events. Demographic information suggested that the world’s pace of population growth was continuing to accelerate: with an estimated annual rate of natural increase of 2 percent (or more) by the mid-1960s, “doubling time” had been reduced to 35 years—or less. And in the mid-1960s the race between food and population appeared to be ominously tight in many of the impoverished, high-fertility regions of the world. Particularly alarming was the situation in India, where the monsoon rains failed for two successive years. Millions of famine deaths there in the mid-1960s were only narrowly averted thanks to massive American food aid shipments and a disciplined, effective local distribution program run by Indian bureaucrats.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were the glory days for foundation officers concerned with the world population problem. Political support for a federally-funded population program had coalesced, and the U.S. Agency for International Development had appointed Dr. Reimert T. Ravenholt, a militant anti-natalist, as head of its new Population Branch. With Robert S. McNamara’s accession as President of the World Bank in 1968, the population movement gained an ally eager to channel resources from that enormous institution into funding Third World family planning. And at the UN, a United Nations Fund for Population Activities (later to be renamed the United Nations Population Fund, although the acronym remained the same) was established in 1969. In this heady era of the population movement, American foundations were situated to serve as pilot boats for great, new vessels.
In those years, Ford and Rockefeller were able to guide, or at least strongly influence, the unfolding of the population movement by concentrating funding on population research. Ford and Rockefeller invested heavily to develop academic expertise in the population issue, underwriting new population centers at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, and bolstering extant programs at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. Ford and Rockefeller also heavily funded contraceptive research, much of it under the aegis of the Population Council. Among the many innovations financed under this effort was the now-familiar “Lippes loop,” the intrauterine contraceptive device. Such technological advances offered potential parents an array of new means for fertility regulation and family limitation—all of them more attractive than such “sure-fire” traditional techniques as abstinence and infanticide. Modern contraceptive devices developed with Ford and Rockefeller assistance—and through other funding, both public and private—would be widely disseminated in low-income countries through local and international family planning programs from the 1960s onwards.
Biting the Hand That Feeds
By the 1980s, a number of other major foundations had joined Ford and Rockefeller in the population field, among them Hewlett, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. But despite their swelling ranks and resources, their population programs were, like the population movement itself, increasingly embattled and in disarray.
In some measure, foundation population programs had become victims of their earlier successes. The foundations, for example, had helped develop “institutional capacity” in population studies at American universities—but research by American demographers and economists was now seriously questioning the fundamental premises upon which the “population movement” rested.
Adherents of the population movement, for example, took it as axiomatic that rapid population growth and high levels of fertility posed serious—perhaps even insurmountable—obstacles to economic development in low-income countries. Empirical research by America’s foremost population economists, however, suggested otherwise. Such contrary studies had been accumulating in the 1970s and early 1980s, but perhaps the most devastating intellectual blow came in 1986, with the release of the National Academy of Sciences’ Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions. Although this slim volume came to the “qualitative” conclusion “that slower population growth would be beneficial to economic development for most developing countries,” it indicated that population change was decidedly less important to development prospects than Malthusian thinkers had long been arguing—and that such things as “the quality of markets” and “the nature of government policies” were decidedly more important than Malthusians presumed. It further cast doubt upon a number of specific economic tenets of population activists, such as the allegedly adverse impact of population growth on savings rates and educational quality. Subsequent debate has not significantly shifted the consensus among serious students of population and development. As an Overseas Development Council brief for expanded funding of international population programs honestly acknowledged in 1994, “available evidence from empirical studies does not clearly show that population growth exerts a negative influence on development.”
In addition to questioning the impact of population growth on Third World development prospects, by the 1980s scholars were raising serious questions about the actual demographic impact of family planning programs on fertility levels in low income countries.
For almost a generation, studies have been bandied about claiming to demonstrate that family planning efforts were a major cause of Third World fertility decline—but critical examination of that corpus of writings revealed flawed methodologies, sometimes questionable data, and often an approach to evaluation that was far from impartial. (Although demographers and population planners have, naturally, long been interested in the phenomenon of fertility decline, the striking fact is that they lack any method for accurately predicting its onset, projecting its trajectory, or unambiguously explaining its causes.) A new, more critical, examination of existing evidence suggested that voluntary family planning programs offered only limited scope for altering local fertility levels, since fertility levels themselves tended to coincide closely with parents’ desired family size—irrespective of the contraceptive technologies at hand. While the definitive “revisionist” study of this genre would not be published until 1994, discerning observers (both within the foundation world and beyond its confines) had recognized well before that the impact on fertility of subsidized distribution of contraceptives was vastly lower than enthusiasts were claiming—so long, that is, as those population programs were truly voluntary in nature.
(Adult) Population Control
It was precisely the last sticking point, however, that came to trouble the population movement, and the foundations supporting it, most visibly and profoundly in the 1980s. For by the 1980s powerful global actors—most importantly, the government of China—had concluded that the most effective way to lower local fertility levels was through compulsion.
By the mid-1980s, it was incontestible that China’s population program relied upon birth quotas, penalized unapproved parents, and even imposed involuntary abortions upon hapless mothers. Notwithstanding a number of honorable exceptions, the reaction of the population movement to these ghastly revelations might charitably be described as morally tone-deaf.
Some population activists pretended the evidence about these Chinese abuses was ambiguous; some came to a guarded defense of China’s practices; in the case of UNFPA, as already mentioned, some awarded the architects of the Chinese program international population prizes. Suffice it to say that population officers at American foundations were not among the Chinese program’s most vocal critics. Such was the climate at the Rockefeller Foundation, in fact, that its population program saw no problem with funding a mass field test in China of a “Male pill,” gossypol—an injectable contraceptive causing prolonged infertility, and irreversible in the interim.
This jarring ethical obtuseness was helping to fuel a strong reaction against activist population policies within an increasing portion of the American public. To be sure, such trends as the rise of the “religious right,” and the increasing nationwide skepticism about the merits of foreign aid, would arguably have posed mounting problems to taxpayer-supported population programs in any case. But the moral myopia of key elements within the population movement, and the increasing shrillness of some of its spokespersons, had their own adverse impact on public attitudes toward international population programs. In 1985, the United States reduced its aid to the UNFPA; thereafter it suspended all UNFPA support. Though the incoming Clinton Administration would manage to reinstate funding for the UNFPA, the 1994 turnover of Congress brought deep and immediate cutbacks. The writing on the wall was clear: popular support for international population programs had become fragile, and was quite limited—far more limited than the population movement had ever anticipated.
The Morning After
American foundations reacted to diminishing popular support for the population movement with two stratagems. Surprisingly, given the vast resources at their command, the first was to lobby explicitly for more taxpayer funds for international population funding. The 1996 annual report of the Packard Foundation, for example, states that grants in the population area are made “to support and develop the case for giving population and family planning a higher priority in government budgets. . . .” Among the specific grants announced that year were support for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and Population Action International (formerly the Population Crisis Committee). Packard’s 1998 grant cycle includes $50,000 for the Population Reference Bureau for “a major public education initiative to inform U.S. policy audiences about global population dynamics, and their implications for America’s interests and for the quality of life here and abroad,” and a like amount for the Population Resource Center for “briefings for members of Congress and their staffs on international population issues.”
Other foundations committed to “population action” report similar patterns of grants, including a three-year, $1.5 million Ford Foundation grant announced this year to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for “research and public policy activities on reproductive health and rights, both domestically and in foreign countries.” In this new stratagem, nonetheless, critics saw something unseemly: an effort to leverage the wealth of extraordinarily rich individuals, through the instruments of propagandizing or outright litigation, into the extraction of revenues from taxpayers of modest means—and for purposes with which those taxpayers would not necessarily be comfortable.
The second stratagem, which brings us up to the establishment of the United Nations Foundation, was to support through private funds the very international population activities the American public was evidently unwilling to underwrite. It is not just the very newest population-oriented foundations which have entered into this enterprise: the Hewlett, Rockefeller, and Packard foundations, for example, have all recently donated money and made pledges to the UNFPA. To date, those commitments have been modest, totaling less than $1 million. In awarding and announcing those grants, however, those multibillion-dollar foundations have now established a precedent for directly subsidizing population programs under United Nations auspices that they deem to be underfunded.
The Coming Bride Shortage
We should not, of course, assume that there are no global “population problems”—if by that phrase we mean social and economic challenges rooted in demographic trends. Indeed, as we approach the end of the century, a number of such global problems squarely face us. How will the industrialized nations cope with new floods of humanitarian refugees and asylum-seekers, not to mention the mass of skilled and qualified laborers from developing countries seeking to find employment in the affluent West? How will the post-Soviet bloc redress the recent, menacing upsurges in death rates (for reasons not yet fully explained) or sub-Saharan Africa its declines in life expectancy (a consequence, it is widely surmised, of the AIDS pandemic)? With respect to fertility, there are issues attendant to the sub- replacement fertility levels that now characterize nearly half the planet’s populace (among these, the question of how to finance old-age retirement for a rapidly aging citizenry), and questions for East Asia related to a looming bride shortage (born of sex-selective abortion practices that have strongly favored male descendants).
To all of these questions, unfortunately, the population movement, and the American foundations that have supported it, seem to remain strangely indifferent. Although token grants to investigate such problems can doubtless be identified, the overwhelming thrust of their agenda still conforms with the original, tarnished, anti-natalist project.
For despite the new code-words devised and alliances sought—“stabilizing world population,” “promoting sustainable development,” “enhancing women’s reproductive health and freedom,” and so forth—the population movement is still fixated upon what it once was candid enough to call “population control”—implementing “population targets” and achieving “birth goals,” especially in the low-income regions of the world. And while the American public continues to look with favor upon such objectives as improving Third World health (to which end family planning can contribute), the ideological aims of the population movement are simply not shared by ordinary American taxpayers.
In an uncanny sense, it would seem, Ted Turner’s unprecedented gift to the United Nations is hearkening us “back to the future.” For over a generation ago—in 1962—President John F. Kennedy wistfully inquired whether the Ford Foundation could not devote all of its resources to the cause of international “population control.” The implication of his remark was that the public purse could not sustain so worthy a goal—that only enlightened industrialists and their stewards could, to paraphrase that same President, “bear such a burden.”
A generation and more after the late President’s suggestion for the Ford Foundation, it is clear that the American philanthropic community is prepared to bear a considerable burden for its population causes. This year alone, America’s larger private foundations are slated to award $150 million in population grants—an amount that is expected to rise in coming years. What is far less clear, however, is why the population movement continues to hold such fascination for American philanthropists—why worldwide “population control,” as the less tutored among them still call it, should still capture the imagination of the vastly rich and their legatees.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard Center for Population Studies. He has served as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation.