• World
  • Apr 30

Explainer - International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)

Global progress towards sustainable development will continue to stall unless countries do more to bridge the gender gap and reduce poverty and inequality, Dennis Francis, the President of the General Assembly said.

He was speaking at an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo.

Francis pointed to significant advances and progress made since then, particularly in the areas of poverty reduction, life expectancy and food security. 

International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)

• The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was held in Cairo from September 5 to 13, 1994.

• It was the largest inter-governmental conference on population and development ever held.

• A total of 11,000 participants—from governments, the United Nations, inter-governmental organisations, non-governmental organisations and the media—contributed their expertise to make the Conference a critical success.

• The Cairo Conference moved population policy and programmes away from a focus on human numbers to a focus on human lives. 

• It put the emphasis where it should be: on improving the lives of individuals, and increasing respect for their human rights. 

• Delegates from all regions and cultures agreed that reproductive health is a basic human right.

• There, 179 governments adopted a revolutionary Programme of Action and called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take centre stage in national and global development efforts.  

• Specifically, the Programme of Action called for all people to have access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including voluntary family planning, safe pregnancy and childbirth services, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections.

• It recognised that reproductive health and women’s empowerment are intertwined, and that both are necessary for the advancement of society.

• It affirmed that inclusive sustainable development is not possible without prioritising human rights, including reproductive rights; empowering women and girls; and addressing inequalities as well as the needs, aspirations and rights of individual women and men.

How did the ICPD change the world?

• In the 1960s, as mortality rates declined around the world, some researchers and policymakers panicked that population growth would outstrip natural resources, leading to famine and societal collapse. 

• Governments responded: some studied the impact of population growth on economies and the environment, others expanded family planning programmes, and a few took actions, sometimes coercive ones, to lower fertility rates.

• The ICPD Programme of Action brought the global community together and reflected a new consensus about response to population growth. It firmly established that the rights and dignity of individuals, rather than numerical population targets, were the best way for individuals to realise their own fertility goals. 

• Furthermore, governments acknowledged that these rights are essential for global development. 

• The ICPD represented a resounding endorsement that securing reproductive health, individual rights and women’s empowerment is the obligation of every country and community. 

• ICPD set the standard for people-centred development, guiding national policies and programmes for the implementation of the Programme of Action by governments, in collaboration with parliaments and civil society, including women and youth-led organisations, the private sector, community groups and individuals at the grassroots level.

• This Programme of Action placed emphasis on the indissoluble relationship between population and development and focused on meeting the needs of individuals within the framework of universally recognised human rights standards instead of merely meeting demographic goals.

• The conference produced a watershed global agreement putting people at the centre of development, one that committed to realising better health, rights and choices for all.

• It affirmed a vision of human potential that has inspired significant progress ever since, echoed and amplified by the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed in 2015.

• The ICPD marked a turning point in how we approach sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Programme of Action acknowledged that reliable, timely and internationally comparable data form the basis for policy and programme development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

• Since the adoption of the ICPD Programme of Action, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has supported five-year reviews of its implementation.

• In 2015, world leaders unanimously adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a historic set of goals to eliminate poverty, achieve gender equality, and secure the health and well-being of all people. 

• The 17 global goals, also called Agenda 2030, call for collective effort across a wide range of areas — including environmental action, public health, human rights, education, and much more — to usher in a new era of development around the world.

• At the 2019 Commission on Population and Development, government representatives agreed that the principles of the ICPD Programme of Action are essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 


• The year 2024 marks the 30th anniversary of the ICPD in Cairo. 

• The anniversary is a critical opportunity to discuss how the world has changed since the adoption of the landmark agenda, including demographic shifts and significant global threats, such as climate change, pandemics, economic instability and inequality. 

• Almost 30 years since the landmark conference in Cairo, people-centred development has enabled numerous gains. 

• Humanity is healthier and happier; motherhood is safer; people are living longer. 

• There has been a 25 per cent increase in global contraceptive prevalence rate around the world. Adolescent births have declined steeply, and the global maternal mortality ratio has fallen.

• But progress has been slow and unequal, disproportionately improving the lives of people who are easiest to reach, leaving many members of marginalised communities excluded. 

• And progress has stalled or reversed on some fundamental issues, such as maternal deaths. Tragically, a woman dies every two minutes due to pregnancy or childbirth.

• Hundreds of millions of women around the world are still not using modern contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. 

• Preventable maternal deaths have declined by 40 per cent, but the world is still miles from the ICPD Programme of Action’s target to reduce maternal deaths to fewer than 75 per 100,00 live births. 

• There has also been widespread action to end harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. In countries with high prevalence of FGM, for example, the proportion of girls subject to the practice fell from 49 per cent to 31 per cent. Yet because of population growth, the total number of women and girls affected has actually grown.

• Today, progress is threatened by multifaceted crises, backsliding on the rights and choices of women and girls, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the polarisation of the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda. 

• Greater political will and investment are needed to dismantle the social and structural barriers that prevent women, girls and millions of others who live in poverty or suffer discrimination or violence from achieving their potential.

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