A Little Help From My Friends

Phoebe Connelly

34 Mil­lion Friends for the UNF­PA is the cul­mi­na­tion of a sleep­less night that an out­raged Jane Roberts spent in July 2002 after learn­ing the Bush admin­is­tra­tion had cut all U.S. fund­ing to the Unit­ed Nations Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNF­PA).

Found­ed in 1969, UNF­PA is the world’s largest inter­na­tion­al source of fund­ing for pop­u­la­tion and repro­duc­tive health pro­grams. Against the rec­om­men­da­tions of experts and bipar­ti­san Con­gres­sion­al sup­port, Pres­i­dent George W. Bush blocked fund­ing based on alle­ga­tions that UNF­PA sup­ports coer­cive fam­i­ly plan­ning in Chi­na — accu­sa­tions that have been proved ground­less by mul­ti­ple inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions, includ­ing one con­vened by Col­in Powell.

As a long time repro­duc­tive health activist, Roberts, a 62-year-old retired French teacher from Rial­to, Cal­i­for­nia, had been watch­ing the administration’s actions on this mat­ter close­ly. To me, it was the proof of whether Bush real­ly was a com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­v­a­tive,” she says.

The extent of his com­pas­sion now evi­dent, Roberts decid­ed to address the cut in fund­ing her­self by call­ing on 34 mil­lion peo­ple to each give $1 to UNF­PA. She began her cam­paign with that quin­tes­sen­tial grass­roots tool: a let­ter to the edi­tor of the San Bernardi­no Sun. As an exer­cise in out­raged democ­ra­cy,” she wrote, would 34 mil­lion of my fel­low Amer­i­cans please join me by send­ing one dol­lar to the U.S. Com­mit­tee for Unit­ed Nations Pop­u­la­tion Fund? This would right a ter­ri­ble wrong.” 

Roberts’ actions caught the atten­tion of the U.S. Com­mit­tee for UNF­PA, an orga­ni­za­tion formed in the late 90s to pro­mote aware­ness and sup­port for the fund. The Com­mit­tee put her in touch with Lois Abra­ham, a lawyer in New Mex­i­co who had arrived at the same idea. Togeth­er, the two women estab­lished 34 Mil­lion Friends (www​.34mil​lion​friends​.org) to replace the miss­ing U.S. funding. 

The lost fund­ing rep­re­sent­ed 12 per­cent of the fund’s 2002 bud­get. The drain con­tin­ues: In 2003, the admin­is­tra­tion again denied con­gres­sion­al­ly man­dat­ed fund­ing to UNF­PA, and observers fear that the $34 mil­lion appro­pri­at­ed by Con­gress for the 2004 fis­cal year also will be cut.

So far, Roberts’ group has raised $1.9 mil­lion, which will help pay for ini­tia­tives relat­ed not only to birth con­trol, but mater­nal health, child­birth and women’s equal­i­ty. In 1999, UNF­PA added reduc­tion of HIV/AIDS infec­tion rates to its goals and reaf­firmed a focus on afford­able, acces­si­ble repro­duc­tive healthcare. 

Roberts sums up the fund’s impor­tance this way: When the world takes care of women, women take care of the world. Women are the sta­bi­liz­ing influ­ence in com­mu­ni­ties, in soci­eties and countries.” 

For Roberts, it is the gath­er­ing of indi­vid­ual donors that gives 34 Mil­lion Friends its pow­er. She says she would rather have 1,000 $1 con­tri­bu­tions than one $1,000 — not that larg­er dona­tions aren’t nice. 

We want any­body to be able to con­tribute, and feel good about it,” she says. One donor, a grand­fa­ther, sends in $5 a month in hon­or of his five grand­daugh­ters. Anoth­er, a teenage moth­er, read about the fund in Glam­our, and sent in a dona­tion with hopes for a bet­ter future for her daugh­ter. Such sto­ries con­vince Roberts that her fund is empow­er­ing the donors by giv­ing them a voice and a stake in world affairs.

Roberts has cer­tain­ly been affect­ed by her involve­ment with the cam­paign. She and Lois Abra­ham now are good friends, and she speaks laugh­ing­ly of her non­stop trav­el sched­ule and increased com­put­er lit­er­a­cy. At most, all I ever did before 34 Mil­lion Friends was e‑mail my daugh­ter. Well, I have learned to write doc­u­ments, e‑mail them, attach them. I’ve learned how to Google things!”

In ear­ly May, Roberts trav­eled to Brus­sels to launch Friends in the Euro­pean Union. For her, the cam­paign has become more than just a means of replac­ing funds. By expand­ing the project, she hopes to build a world­wide con­stituen­cy of peo­ple who, by small gifts, every year announce to the world that this should be a — if not the — world’s top pri­or­i­ty. They’d also be say­ing to their own gov­ern­ments, We want you to sup­port this.’”

In the long term,” she says, just giv­ing women the chance to make choic­es about their own lives will help the cause of peace and stability.”

Phoebe Con­nel­ly, a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor at In These Times, is Web Edi­tor at The Amer­i­can Prospect.
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