Air Date: June 8, 1999

Program 9923

Cairo+5; Global Y2K

Ahmad Kamal, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations
Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

AHMAD KAMAL:The problem of Y2K is that it is a virus. Because it jumps across borders and the weakest link in the chain will affect the integrity of the whole chain. No nation, no man, is an island where Y2K is concerned.

KRISTIN MC HUGH:This week on Common Ground, a look at the global response to the Y2K computer problem. And later, a report on the five-year anniversary of the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development.

NAFIS SADIK:The number of abortions have indeed declined, in some countries as high as 50-60% decline. And so, you know, it’s very much related to the access to contraceptive services. I think what it shows is that women don’t really want to have abortions, they would rather have some other way of preventing that pregnancy.

MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristen McHugh.

All over the world people are preparing for the potential year 2000 computer problem. Our senior producer, Keith Porter, spoke with a leading diplomat about the global implications of the so-called "Y2K computer bug."

KEITH PORTER:Ahmad Kamal is the Ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s not a computer expert. But he knows enough to understand that the Y2K problem will have an impact on both the technological haves and the have-nots of the world. Ambassador Kamal serves as Chairman of the UN Working Group on Informatics.

KAMAL:Informatics is a word that was more or less coined by me. It’s a transposition from the French to the English. In French it has the meaning of information technology. In English it’s a good short-hand, concise word which really signifies the type of changes that are being brought about in the thinking process of peoples as a result of the enormous quantum leaps being taken, taking place in information technology. So we established this Working Group on Informatics at the United Nations about four years ago. The idea initially was of educating member states and the United Nations Secretariat in the use of information technology. We established our own servers, we created connectivity, we gave free access to the Internet to 185 countries, e-mail connections, servers, training—we trained people. We encouraged people to write their own web pages. You now have about 60-odd countries with their own web pages. All this means that there is an enormous database of information which is now sitting on the Internet and which is thereby accessible freely, without let or hindrance, to millions of people around the world.

PORTER: And now how did your, how did the working group come to be involved in the Y2K problem?

KAMAL:The Y2K problem came up about two years ago when a certain number of Congressman and Senators from the United States wrote into say "You have this working group on Informatics. Are you aware of Y2K? Are you aware of the international implications of this? And is there anything that you can do?" And we analyzed it immediately and came to the conclusion that this was indeed a problem that could be of great significance, irritation, upset, and perhaps creating serious disturbances around the world. And that the only way it could be handled was by having an international focal point, which could only be the United Nations. And so the Working Group got involved. Initially we wrote letters to all member states saying, "You have a problem. Are you doing something about it? Are you aware of the problem? Are you aware of the possible solutions to the problem? Do you know the parameters of how wide it can be? Do you know how many mainframes you have? Are they compliant or not compliant?"

And then we found that those letters were not producing too much of an effect. And so we notched up the aggressiveness of the action a bit by bringing in a resolution in the General Assembly which now called upon member states to address the issue. That was followed up in turn by, we were getting some guidelines agreed upon in the Economic and Social Council. The guidelines were, if you wish, a way of helping member states, those who were not fully up with it, to try and establish the problem and to identify the solutions.

Even that was not good enough. So in December we decided to call an international, a global conference on Y2K. This conference brought together national Y2K coordinators from about 140 countries. They all traveled to New York for a single day.

PORTER:And this was the first time they had ever gathered before, isn’t it?

KAMAL:Absolutely the first time. They did not know that the, who else existed in the field. They had not exchanged ideas. Many of them had not even established the width of the problem. And so our purpose in this one-day conference was firstly to bring them together so that they could at least see each other. Secondly, to give them some ideas about areas that they might not have thought about on their own. And we were very happy that at the end of a single day—this is an unprecedented thing in the United Nations, to bring so many people together for a one-day conference. It is unprecedented to have a global conference prepared in a short space of just eight weeks.

We, and several extremely important ideas emerged out of that conference. The first was the establishment of a listserve, which is a sort of a private network of Y2K national coordinators who are now corresponding freely with each other. I maintain an administrative listserve myself. It is a constantly expanding listserve. We are already on 11 of these listserves, within a period of 3 months. And these Y2K coordinators are speaking to each other and any message from one to the other automatically gets relayed to all the others, so everybody is learning from each other.

The second idea, which emerged, was the identification of some sectors, which had not been identified earlier. Everybody had talked about banking; everybody had spoken about aviation. Few people had spoken about transport—shipping for example. Few people had spoken about energy, energy and electrical grids. And so these were new sectors, which emerged in the discussion.

Then a very important idea, which emerged also, was cross-border problems. In several areas of the world you have facilities or utilities which go across borders. For example electrical grids. And so while you may be totally compliant in your, within your national boundaries, the neighboring country which is supplying electricity across the border may not be compliant and a collapse in that supply can create a collapse even within your own country. So this type of sub-regional actions on cross-border Y2K problems was the third idea which emerged.

The fourth was to establish a time line for regional meetings. You have one taking place in Asia, in Manila; you have another in Eastern Europe, in Sofia; you have a third one in Latin America, in Lima; the European Commission is arranging its meetings. So there are a number of regional meetings which are bringing Y2K coordinators together again to see what the are doing within their respective regions.

By and large, we should be compliant by the middle of the year and we should be spending the second half of the year only on questions of contingency planning and crisis management.

PORTER:In this country we hear a lot about big corporations—General Motors or Microsoft or Con Edison, and what they’re doing with Y2K. Are there problems that are unique to developing countries, because of the different types of technology they have?

KAMAL:By and large developing countries have a much lower access to computers than developed countries. And that’s obvious. There’s less electricity, there are fewer resources, and there are fewer computers. The problem of Y2K is that it is a virus. Because it jumps across borders and the weakest link in the chain will affect the integrity of the whole chain. So it really does not matter whether you are a developed or a developing country. If there is one part of the world which remains non-compliant, that can, that virus can then start jumping across borders, something like the way the financial problems in Thailand and Indonesia—which is very far from the United States—jumped backwards and ultimately reached Wall Street and created a crisis. And so we just have to concentrate on all parts of the world. And that’s the whole purpose of the exercise of these global conferences, to try and bring home to people that no nation, no man, is an island where Y2K is concerned.

PORTER:What about inside the United Nations? Inside the UN Secretariat and in the specialized agencies and in the headquarters itself, is everything okay there with, in regard to Y2K?

KAMAL:It, this is a smaller problem. Because you have the United Nations Secretariat itself and then you have the United Nations family. That is to say the specialized agencies, the funds and programs; the UN is present in about 30 different locations in the world with different headquarters. And the idea was to make sure that the UN computers—for accounting, for personnel management, for communications, etc., remain compliant. The initial exercise which came to us about a year ago said in a very terse manner, that the UN system was compliant. And we were absolutely sure that the statement was not founded. And so we asked for a review of the entire exercise. And the review has shown that major portions of the UN Secretariat were not compliant. But action is being taken in a very aggressive manner and I am confident that in the United Nations Secretariat and in the UN family secretariats, compliance will exist by the middle of this year.

PORTER:There are lots of people who are panicking, people who feel a sense of panic about Y2K and about the potential for catastrophe and panic and crisis. Do you feel any of that? Do you feel any personal panic or worry about what will happen on January 1st, 2000?

KAMAL:Not really. My only panic was that I was scared that people were not addressing the problem with the type of, with the degree of attention that this problem deserved. That is what led to panic in the Working Group on Informatics. But now we find that the awareness levels have increased, that the coverage to the problem around the world is very great, that national Y2K coordinators have been established in most countries. The more you sit down, take off your coat, roll up your sleeves, and begin addressing the problem the surer you are that you will have addressed the problem by the end of the year. So I now feel slightly more confident that we will not have catastrophe.

What we will have for sure are instances of non-compliance. How serious will those non-compliance incidents be? Will they go only to the extent of irritation? Or will they create disruptions? Or will they create crisis? The, much of this is in the eye of the beholder and we are not quite sure. But the more noise that is made and the more attention that is put into this problem as of now the surer we are that that the lesser will be the disruption at the end of the year.

PORTER:You mentioned something about contingency planning. What could we plan for that might make things better on January 1st, 2000?

KAMAL:Well, contingency planning means that you sit back and question your own assumptions. You have an assumption for example that if you press a button on the wall the lights will come on. Sit back and assume that the lights do not come on. Buy a couple of candles and a matchbox. And that is contingency planning. This is of course on a very minor scale. On a major scale, if you are a company your assumption is that your supply line is going to remain intact. Ask yourself the question, "What do I do if my spare parts do not arrive on time, if they come in a week late? How am I going to resolve that problem? What happens if I find that my computer system goes down for a day? What are the alternatives that I have worked out?"

The more you think about the problem the more you, attention that you give to working without many of the fundamental assumptions that you have taken for granted, the better off you are when the problem comes.

PORTER:That is Ambassador Ahmad Kamal. He is Chairman of the UN Working Group on Informatics. In a moment we’ll get a report on global population concerns.

SADIK:I think the most important indication of the interest of governments is the fact that developing countries have increased their resources that they are devoting to issues of reproductive health and rights and gender issues since Cairo. And you know, we have, I think, quite good data to substantiate that.

MC HUGH:Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MC HUGH:The nations of the world gathered five years ago for a global conference on population and development. A major review of that conference’s goals is now underway at the United Nations. Keith Porter spoke with one of the event’s leaders.

PORTER:In 1994 11,000 people gathered in Cairo for the International Conference on Population and Development. Dr. Nafis Sadik is Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. She served as Secretary General of the Cairo conference.

SADIK:The most important thing that came out of Cairo conference was to move away from a top-down demographic approach to demographic issues and to move to a more people-centered. Which means that you respond to the needs of individuals, especially of women, because all the data and surveys showed that women in fact desire smaller family size than the number they actually have. And when you ask them why they have more children than they would like they say that, first, they don’t have access to services or information, or but, even where they do have access, then they are not in a position always to make the decision for themselves because that decision is made by husbands, families, and others. And thirdly, that even if they have the access and perhaps could even, but they don’t have the time because they have so overburdened with other things that they have to do.

So the Cairo agenda in fact came out of this, these findings and that really, if you really looked at individuals and created that enabling environment, provided access to information and services and allowed individuals and especially women to make those decisions, then what was needed at the national level or the global level in fact coincides with individual needs. And it’s an end in itself. So that was the central strategy or the thrust of the Cairo Agenda.

PORTER:Can you point to some ways that the world is different now because of the Cairo conference?

SADIK:Yes, I think that there are many things that have happened since Cairo, which would not have happened if we had not had the conference and reached some agreements. For example, the linkage of reproductive health and rights with gender issues and status of women and the broadening of the concept of reproductive health to include not just medical issues, clinical issues, but really also the rights issues, the social framework, the cultural framework. Therefore issues like gender violence, the decision-making of women—when to marry and, you know, and whether to marry, and when to have children—all these issues came on the table. Rape, violence in marriage and between women and men. Which were always thrust under the carpet and not discussed are now, you know, in the public discussion.

Issues like female genital mutilation—this was the first conference, the Cairo conference, where in fact this issue was put on the table without it being thrown out. Everyone accepted, all governments, that this was something that had to be eliminated and governments had to do everything that they could and support NGOs and others to remove this. And since Cairo many governments have taken steps to eliminate. So I think there are many things that have happened.

One is that countries have re-examined their population policies to make it population and development. Therefore, you know, much more attention to the social sectors and gender issues. And I think that’s universal, every country.

Secondly, the Cairo Agenda was also therefore to move away from just family planning and fertility control, to rights. And therefore it was to put family planning as part of a reproductive health approach, which as I described is a broader agenda than just the clinical services. And there was a lot of discussion in Cairo about this broadening of this approach. But after Cairo it was interesting that every government adopted it and then set about on how to implement it.

And adolescent reproductive health, which is a very sensitive topic even in many developed countries like the US and the UK, is on the public agenda again. You know, not uniformly is everybody addressing it, but at least the discussion is taking place since Cairo. So I think many very exciting and new and forward-looking developments have taken place. And I think the most important indication of the interest of governments is the fact that developing countries have increased their resources that they are devoting to issues of reproductive health and rights and gender issues since Cairo. And you know, we have, I think, quite good data to substantiate that.

PORTER:Well, there must be some things that you’re disappointed in, some things that you thought may have, would have happened five years after Cairo and haven’t happened. What are those things that you might be most disappointed in?

SADIK:Well, I think that the area that we found the most difficult is the area of adolescent reproductive health. I think it’s on the public agenda but in spite of very good examples of experiences in something like 50 or 60 countries—they are mainly countries in the North—but, of how this could be addressed—many countries are unwilling to accept the idea of sexual education and sex education for young people. Even less are they willing to accept the idea of access to services. That you know, parents have difficulties, teachers have, religious leaders, political leaders; I mean so different groups in their society. And the fact is that this is an increasing problem and this cohort of 15-24, is 1.1 billion people. So it’s a huge number of the people in the world. And the fact that, you know, we are just in the debate, in the public discussion, but not moved to action, is somewhat of a disappointment.

Second thing which was of course not addressed I think enough in Cairo, because perhaps the scale of the problem was not so evident at that time, was, is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since Cairo this has taken on unbelievable proportions, especially in some of the—you know, the most affected countries, 28 of the most affected countries, mostly in Africa. And in several of those countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Malawi, etc., the incidence is like 25% of the population. And this of course relates to the whole difficulty of dealing with sexuality and sexual education issues, which in fact also is linked to the adolescent health, reproductive health problem. But I think that’s something that we, we need to pay a lot more attention to.

And thirdly I, I’d say that, but I quote all the laws and changes, I think we now need, need to think seriously of the application of those laws. And, you know, laws—in fact they’re just the beginning really to change behavior, to change attitudes. They must, the issue that you are addressing—violence or rape or whatever it is, or FGM, the Female Genital Mutilation—must become socially unacceptable. And that’s a long ways. So even like with FGM countries are making the effort, parliaments have passed laws, but societies themselves are not willing to accept those laws.

And finally I think we are disappointed that the international community that agreed on a resource level that would be required to implement the costed package of the ICPD program of action, which was $17 billion by the year 2000, of which only $5.7 billion by the year 2000 was to come from the international community, is not coming. While the, we believe that the developing countries are, I can’t say on target but they are much more on target; the estimates are that they are spending like $9 billion from their own resources, while the international donor community is at only half at what the level that it should be. In fact, under half. It’s something like $2.5 or $2.6 billion. And we believe that in an area where in fact everyone is making the maximum effort they can, where the political commitment is demonstrated by all the changes, the progress that we can show—I mean we have surveys and data to back up what I am saying—and the, and knowing that this is an investment which is very small but which has absolutely monumental affect on all aspects of development. On social sectors, on empowerment of women, of education in girls and boys. And will contribute to economic growth and development as well. That this, and the value of this investment is not recognized. So we hope that in this process of reviewing ICPD+5, that the resource part will also be adequately addressed.

PORTER:Finally, even here in 1999 we still have the controversy surrounding reproductive rights, abortion, birth control, led largely by the Vatican and some fundamentalist countries. What can we do about this disagreement? Will it ever be solved? Are you hopeful?

SADIK:I think that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned that is has a position on modern methods of contraception. They’re not against the idea of planning of the family. The Pope himself talks about natural methods of family planning. So therefore they accept the principle. But of course not all people in the world are Catholics. And therefore the approach of the program of action agreed in Cairo is that we should promote individual choice. And individual choice means that everyone should have access to all the information and have access to all the services. The decision on whether to use, when to use, and how many children to have, should be the individuals’. And they can make that in keeping with their own cultures.

But of course the Vatican doesn’t agree with that. And they, though they, I think they accept, they have said that they accept the Cairo consensus. And they will not reopen the agenda. But what they are trying to say is that what does the concept of reproductive rights actually include; though, you know, it’s very well defined in the program of action. But I think they’re finding some, some ways of trying to re-open the agenda.

As far as most of the Muslim countries are concerned I’m quite pleased. Like even countries like Sudan and Iran are very much committed to the Cairo agenda. Family planning is very much part of their program. In Iran, also adolescent reproductive health is being addressed very openly. And some countries are using, you know, an argument which is in fact false, that the program of action is promoting abortion. Because actually no country can argue against family planning or modern methods of contraception anymore. Because that’s a lost for them cause. Because every country accepts it.

On the abortion issue in Cairo we had a huge debate. You know, half the conference was devoted to one paragraph. And the agreement was reached in a way that it satisfied all countries. And it started with that abortion should not be promoted as a method of family planning, and everybody agreed with that. But that wherever unsafe abortions took place countries should find out why and remove the cause for that unwanted pregnancy by providing access to safe and effective methods, treating complications of abortions, and treating girls, I mean women, in a human compassion fashion—proper counseling and so on. But it also goes on to say that where abortion is legal or abortion is within the law, then safe and accessible services should be made available.

The number of abortions have indeed declined, in some countries as high as 50-60% decline. And so, you know, it’s very much related to the access to contraceptive services. I think what it shows is that women don’t really want to have abortions, they would rather have some other way of preventing that pregnancy.

PORTER:That is Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

MC HUGH:And I’m Kristen McHugh. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to program No. 9923; that's program No. 9923. To order by credit card you can call us at 319·264·1500. Transcripts are also available on our web site, Our e-mail address is

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