Human Progress and Sustainability for All

04 April 2014

Opening Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin at the High-Level Debate on ICPD Beyond 2014

As prepared for delivery

High-Level Interactive Debate on the ICPD Beyond 2014 and
Human Progress and Sustainability
Opening Statement by
Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director
New York, 4 April 2014

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are here today to discuss human progress and sustainability – the concepts that define the challenges and opportunities of development for every individual and household, for societies, and for the world as a whole.

This is a crucial time in the evolution of the global development agenda. The MDGs are coming to an end; new sustainable development goals are being defined, and amidst these two processes is an ongoing agenda that is vital to both: the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action.

As we head into the Commission on Population and Development next week, and as we prepare for the Special Session of the UN General Assembly in September, how we carry forward the Programme of Action, and ensure that its core concepts and gains feed into the Post-2015 agenda, will shape the very nature of human progress and sustainability in all of its dimensions.
ICPD 1994

The 1994 Cairo Programme of Action reflected remarkable consensus among 179 countries that increasing social, economic and political equality, and protecting women’s and girls’ human rights, is the basis for individual well-being, sustained economic growth and sustainable development.

The Programme of Action charted a course that truly brought together the two aspects of development we are discussing today: human progress and sustainability.

By refusing to pit collective aims against each individual’s rights, dignity and capabilities – and instead stating that sustainability could only be built on a foundation of dignity and rights – the Programme of Action represented a true paradigm shift.

And the evidence of the review of 20 years of implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action overwhelmingly supports that vision.

Fewer women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Maternal mortality worldwide fell by nearly half between 1990 and 2010. More women have access to education, work and political participation. More children, girls in particular, are going to school, with primary school enrolment rates approaching 90 per cent. And nearly 1 billion people have advanced out of extreme poverty – all while the global total fertility rate fell by 23 per cent.

Human Rights

Yet the review also underscores the challenges we continue to face.

The PoA reaffirmed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – in particular that all people are “born free and equal in dignity and rights” and are “entitled to all human rights without distinction of any kind”.

But the results of the ICPD Beyond 2014 review show that the realization of dignity and human rights remains far from universal.

Major gains have been made in the elaboration of human rights related to the ICPD agenda, and in developing accountability systems to ensure that people know their rights and have a means of realizing them.

Yet for far too many, human rights remain abstract, disconnected from the marginalization and exclusion they face – and these same people are often excluded from the systems in place to help them realize their rights.

When we think of extending ICPD, what we must carry forward is the recognition that human rights – particularly women’s and girls’ – are the basis of development, fully interlinked with and mutually dependent on well-being, dignity and opportunity.


Whether due to extreme poverty and rising economic inequality, lack of equitable access to life saving health services, lack of true gender equality in any society, or ongoing discrimination and marginalization, many have been left out of development gains, to the detriment of all.

These gaps have demonstrable costs. For inequality, diversion of the vast majority of the world’s wealth – 80 per cent to just 8 per cent of adults – limits resources for poverty reduction and sustained growth. High inequality limits political access where assets equal influence, and it reduces social cohesion, upward mobility, empathy and shared responsibility.

Gains for women in education and the labour force have helped generate economic booms in many countries; yet continued gender inequality holds back women, families and societies, and the scourge of gender-based violence haunts every society.

Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, drives, and is driven by, gender inequality. It denies girls and women the ability to stay healthy, delay marriage and pregnancy, stay in school, and make decisions that define the course of their lives.

800 women still die every die giving life. And those at gravest risk are poor, marginalized or excluded, primarily in the poorest countries but also in the pockets of vulnerability that persist in wealthier countries.

Women in the developed world have only a 1 in 3,800 lifetime risk of dying of maternal causes; while in sub-Saharan Africa, the risk is 1 in 39.

A growing body of research shows that discrimination and marginalization have great costs to individuals in their health and productivity, as well as to society. And where intolerance is present, it is often directed towards multiple groups, not just one.

We must no longer allow the divisions between us to grow, or to stand in the way of human progress for all.

Young people

We now have the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen. In Africa, over 30 per cent of the population is between 10 and 24, and will remain so until perhaps 2035.

Yet lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is holding back the world’s young people, creating a cascade of challenges for them and for their societies.

Worldwide, more than 15 million girls age 15 to 19 years give birth every year – one in five before they turn 18. Pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries.

Nine out of 10 adolescent pregnancies take place in the context of early marriage. And for millions of girls, early marriage and childbearing spell the end of education.

Gains in primary education are a great success, yet quality education remains a massive challenge, and progress in secondary, tertiary and vocational schooling, where the skills and resources for lifelong success are made, lags far behind.

And what do young people face when they leave school? All too often: unemployment. Young people make up 40 per cent of the unemployed globally. The world must create 600 million new, good jobs over the next decade to fill this gap and account for the young people who will enter the labour market.

We know more and more about these issues because the voices of young people are demanding our attention. Their participation is crucial for getting any development framework right – and for making it happen on the ground.

Yet among young people, one voice in particular goes unheard – the voice of the adolescent girl. The review shows that we know the least about her – her rights, her freedoms, her knowledge of and control over her body. What we do know points to the risks she faces every day.

Millions of adolescent girls and young women live in deep poverty. They may be married to a much older or abusive man, working in domestic service or other unsafe occupations, engaged in exploitive sex work. They may be migrants or affected by conflict or disaster – situations in which young women and girls are often at the highest risk of poor sexual and reproductive health, violence and exploitation.

In many countries, adolescence and the onset of puberty is a time when life opens up for boys, but closes for girls. Every girl, regardless of where she lives, or her economic circumstances, has the right to fulfil her human potential.

How we meet the needs and aspirations of our young people will define the world’s future. It will determine:

• whether we reap economic growth from the demographic dividend,

• whether our young people are able to benefit from the productivity, health and well-being that come from growing up in equitable, non-discriminatory and inclusive societies,

• how societies manage the ageing transition, and

• whether urbanization becomes an engine of human progress, with cities that embrace young people in their search for opportunity, social networks and participation.

• And broadly, it will determine the prospects for innovation and entrepreneurship that come from a well-educated, healthy, empowered population and which are critical for charting a course to sustainability

The ICPD recognized the importance of young people for development. As we consider human progress and sustainability, it is crucial that we do so for and with young people.


I would like to end by thanking you for participating today; by thanking the global leaders who will reflect on the past and the future in the course of this interactive debate. Your leadership will be critical in ensuring that the evidence gathered over the past two decades informs the global development agenda beyond 2015. I’d like to challenge all of us to use this debate as a means of advancing our understanding of human progress and sustainability, so that we can help deliver a world of sustainable development for all.


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