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CGD in the News

Room for 10 Billion (New York Times)

May 23, 2011

Rachel Nugent authored a piece on population growth and family planning for the New York Times.

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People have been talking about threat of the population bomb facing the world since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Malthus’s long shadow has loomed over many issues: too many mouths to feed; too much pressure on scarce water resources; densely populated urban settlements producing scary new pathogens that would sweep through populations like the choleric rats of yore and kill us.

Yet, I didn’t duck and cover when I heard the United Nations’s latest report (more like an admission, really) that it was wrong about the world’s population leveling off at 9 billion by 2050. Instead, global population will keep growing until around 2100 and level off around 10 billion.

Even if I don’t lose sleep worrying about when the population bomb is going to hit us, some do worry, and they are likely unhappy with the news from the United Nations that fertility has not dropped as fast as expected in Africa and South Asia. There is no denying that the global environment is already suffering in many ways, some believe as much as if not more from excess consumption than from population totals.

In releasing the report, Hania Zlotnik, the U.N. population division director, said about fast-growing African countries: “If they don’t achieve the lower level of fertility we are projecting, they could have serious problems.”

What happened on my way to the future is that I stopped worrying about figurative bombs and realized that it’s individuals — how they are born, live and die — that determine whether resources are wisely used, whether children are healthy at birth or whether the spread of disease is minimized. A population number doesn’t tell us that.

Fertility and mortality are part of population change, but as David Canning, a demographic economist at Harvard University likes to say, “they have very different effects.” Reducing both is desirable in most developing countries, yet slowing down fertility reduces population, while slowing down mortality increases it.

Demographers have been saying for years that the United Nations was too optimistic in its assumptions about how long it would take for many countries and some states in India (which are just as populous as many countries) to reach replacement level fertility rates, which is when a couple has only enough children to replace themselves. In some places like Kenya, Nigeria and Chad, the decline in fertility rates has stalled, or is being reversed.

The new U.N. projections acknowledge as much. They assume a global fertility rate of about 2.17 in 2050, whereas the earlier projection assumed a global rate very close to replacement level at 2.02 in 2050. This small difference per person translates into 156 million more people in 2050 than earlier projected.

Now that we are likely to see a faster and longer rise in global population, we can focus our efforts on preventing the many little bomblets that explode when fertility and mortality are too high.

There is now very good evidence about how to reduce fertility and create better and healthier lives for women and children. From research in Bangladesh and Ghana, we’ve learned that a comprehensive reproductive health, child health and family planning programs delivered to people’s doorsteps can reduce women’s overall fertility by one child. And the economic, environmental, and social benefits are powerful. In Bangladesh, this meant 40 percent higher earnings for women and 25 percent more assets in the family. It led to families having more access to clean water and to children staying in school longer.

Good programs and policies — such as what my friend Jotham Musinguzi works on in Uganda to allow trained community health workers to administer injectable contraceptives to rural women — can reduce fertility in high population growth countries. This means fewer women with anemia and fewer low-birth weight babies. Those same programs and policies can also reduce childhood and maternal mortality. Even though one of those changes lowers the population and the other increases it, together they produce an incredible win-win that is not evident in the population growth numbers. Maybe it’s best described as the choice between “quality versus quantity” that demographers talk about. Let’s make that the easy choice and the projections will follow.

This article was also published in:

Saati, Georgia; Delo, Slovenia; Der Standard, Austria; Eleftherotypia, Greece; El País, Spain; La Repubblica, Italy; Le Figaro, France; The Observer, U.K.; Poslovni Dnevnik, Croatia; România Libera, Romania; Sabah, Turkey; Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany; Tages-Anzeiger, Switzerland; Clarín, Argentina; El Espectador, Colombia; Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil; Grupo Reforma, Mexico; La Prensa, Panama; La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador; La Razón, Bolivia; La Segunda, Chile; El Observador, Uruguay; Listin Diario, Dominican Republic; Prensa Libre, Guatemala; El Diario de Yucatan, Mexico; El Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua; Trinidad Express, Trinidad; Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil; Grupo Reforma, Mexico; La Prensa, Panama; La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador; La Razón, Bolivia; La Segunda, Chile; El Observador, Uruguay; Listin Diario, Dominican Republic; Prensa Libre, Guatemala; El Diario de Yucatan, Mexico; El Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua; Trinidad Express, Trinidad; Manila Bulletin, Philippines; The Asian Age, India; Today, Singapore; United Daily News, Taiwan; The Korea Times; Toronto Star, Canada