FOR FOUR straight years, President Bush has refused to release $34 million that Congress approves annually for the United Nations Population Fund, which supports the UN's reproductive health work in the world's poorest countries. Instead, ordinary Americans have donated $2.7 million to a grass-roots effort called the 34 Million Friends campaign. The idea is for 34 million individuals to donate a dollar each to save the lives and health of women and children overseas. The donations are a direct rebuke to Bush's policies that would shame a more responsible administration.
The money is needed to fully engage the promise of equality for women in the developing world. The UN program funds efforts to educate adolescents in Africa on the importance of HIV testing; help girls in Nicaragua attend secondary school; and train birth attendants in Afghanistan, a country with one of the world's highest maternal death rates. The canard that the fund is used for abortions or coercive family planning in China was thoroughly debunked by Bush's own State Department, which sent a fact-finding team to evaluate the UN's programs in 2002.
The Bush administration apparently thinks blocking the funds is an easy way to assuage ideological groups whose real problem is with family planning policies that promote the empowerment of women. But failing to invest in smaller, healthier families is shortsighted in the extreme. Every dollar spent yields incalculable dividends not just in freedom from hunger and want but in the sustainable use of natural resources and even in political stability and reduced world conflict.
Last week the Population Fund, known as UNFPA, released its annual world population report. It links sustainable development to the Millennium Goals reaffirmed by world leaders, including Bush, at a UN summit in New York in September. The report argues what should be obvious: In a world with 3 billion females, the goals of eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality, and reversing the global AIDS epidemic cannot be met unless women's access to education, economic opportunity, and reproductive health are also met. As UNFPA's director, Thoraya Obaid, said in a phone interview: ''To make poverty history, you have to make gender discrimination history as well."
Obaid says the 34 Million Friends donations are now being spent on a campaign to help women with obstetric fistula, a debilitating side effect of unsafe childbirth that is easily repaired but a taboo subject in many traditional societies. These donors are true citizens of the world. But there is no substitute for sustained government support from a rich country with a claim to world leadership. Global disease, poverty, and hunger cannot be cured by volunteers alone.