"Current population growth is alarming and killing efforts to combat poverty."

- Sufian Ahmed, Ethiopian Minister of Finance and Economic Development

"You can't keep going with a completely upside-down age distribution, with the pyramid standing on its point. You can't have a country where everyone lives in a nursing home."

- Carl Haub, Senior Demographer at the Population Reference Bureau

The 40th anniversary of World Population Day came and went last month with nary a whisper around D.C. In the U.K., rather more attention was paid, including a House of Lords reception featuring Sarah Brown, the PM's wife, and 150 other notables sipping champagne in honor of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Beyond the protocol-filled receptions, what does World Population Day mean now, and why should we keep it on the calendar?

Commemorating World Population Day may seem like celebrating the anniversary of the Motion Picture Society's movie rating system (G, PG, R, and so on) – another relic created in 1968 that is clearly out of touch with today's world. Was the day rendered unremarkable because of successful efforts to curb rapid population growth? Have new technology, changed cultural mores, and economic progress obviated the need for World Population Day, just as they've made motion picture censorship irrelevant?

Recent articles in The Economist and the New York Times remind us that population is as relevant - and complicated - as ever, although in dramatically different ways than in 1968 when World Population Day was first celebrated.

The Economist points out that high population growth remains a development challenge for many countries, although vastly fewer than 40 years ago. High population growth - particularly when it stems from high fertility rates - undermines improvements in the standard of living, endangers women's health, and limits children's physical and intellectual development. Countries with the highest population growth in the world will see their populations double in one generation - just 23 years! About the time of the first World Population Day, over a hundred countries were on such a growth trajectory. By 2000, only 29 countries were in this category.

High fertility may seem like last century's news, but some of the world's poorest and least stable countries (the African Sahel, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Uganda and Yemen) face dramatic pressure on resources, infrastructure, and public finances in the next couple of decades. The gap between these countries and other developing countries that have brought down their population growth rates is widening. In addition, countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya and the Philippines, have made progress but fertility levels still hover at rates substantially above replacement. This means big increments of population growth in countries already struggling to feed, house and employ their current populations.

The New York Times Magazine article by Russell Shorto addresses the opposite but equally pressing condition felt not only in Europe, but in growing numbers of developing and transition countries: that of very low or negative population growth. Shorto concentrates on the low fertility habits of Italians and French, but the problem he describes poses yet greater challenges in developing countries.

Rapid fertility declines in the 1970s and 1980s have paved the way for emerging market countries ranging from Brazil to India to South Korea and Turkey to quickly grey. Most of these countries are still trying to improve basic living conditions and will have relatively little breathing space to absorb and set in place the reforms needed to provide for health care and retirement of an aging population. Countries growing at 0.5% per year or less – such as South Korea – will not have their current populations replaced for 140 years or more! This implies that many elderly people will be dependent on the productive efforts of an ever shrinking younger workforce. For instance, urban China will have an elderly dependency ratio similar to industrialized countries by 2025; rural China will follow about a decade later. Countries still associated with high fertility -- Indonesia, India, and the Philippines -- will see their elderly population share take off around mid-century.

Last month the U.S. Census Bureau released its revised population projections which anticipate that the world's population will cross the 7 billion mark in 2012, an increase of about 75 million people a year! This number – and the natural resource strains, economic and political shifts, and contributions to global warming that it implies – has huge portent globally. At the same time, increasing numbers of still-developing countries will be trying to cope with the new challenges of population stagnation, including 16 countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia projected to shrink in population.

Looking forward. In September 2008, the Center for Global Development will launch the Demographics for Development Initiative which will examine the defining demographic trends of the 21st century, what they mean for global development and how we can best prepare for them.

By the time the next World Population Day rolls around in July 2009 we hope to be having a lively discussion about how to help the fast growing and the not growing countries of the developing world with their respective development needs. These will include policies that improve both micro and macro-economic prospects, such as:

• Improve the health of women and children
• Provide family planning to the poor and others with high unmet need
• Encourage social conditions that enable women to have greater decision-making authority in the family over child-bearing
• Create flexibility in labor and financial markets, especially for women
• Recognize the needs of different age groups well ahead of the demographic changes, and invest in public services accordingly
• Provide sound and efficient financial services to allow multiple generations to manage and transfer savings

Please join us for a discussion with renowned experts about what demography means for development, beginning on September 23 with Professor Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University. Details will be on the CGD website next month.