Linking Population, Poverty and Development

Reducing Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Development

At the 2005 World Summit, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 and achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of time-bound and quantified targets to attack poverty's root causes in a multi-dimensional way.

The scale of the challenges, and the benefits of success to individuals, communities and the family of nation, are enormous: Global population is expected to increase from about 7billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050, and the population of the 48 Least Developed Countries will more than double to reach 1.7 billion. Almost all of the net increase in population is occurring in the urban areas developing countries, and in many of them, the number of people living in poverty is rising.

Moreover, the supportive development environment that prevailed in the early years of this decade is now threatened as the world faces a global economic slowdown and a food security crisis. At the same time, the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent.

Dimensions of poverty

Substantial evidence suggests that slower population growth and investments in reproductive health and HIV prevention (particularly among adolescents), education, women's empowerment and gender equality reduce poverty. Carrying out the Programme of Action adopted at the International Conference Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and reaching its goal of universal access to reproductive health information and services by 2015 is an essential condition for achieving the MDGs.

A central premise of the ICPD is that the size, growth, age structure and rural-urban distribution of a country's population have a critical impact on its development prospects and on the living standards of the poor. Poverty is multidimensional: impoverished people are deprived of services, resources and opportunities, as well as income. The ICPD realized that investing in people -- and empowering individual women and men with education, equal opportunities and the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children --could create the conditions to allow the poor to break out of the poverty trap.

Critical investments for poverty reduction

The countries in which poverty levels are the highest are generally those that have the most rapid increases in population and the highest fertility levels. Countries that have reduced fertility and mortality by investing in universal health care, including reproductive health, as well as education and gender equality, have made economic gains. A 2001 study of 45 countries, for example, found that if they had reduced fertility by five births per 1,000 people in the 1980s, the average national incidence of poverty of 18.9 per cent in the mid-1980s would have been reduced to 12.6 per cent between 1990 and 1995.

How do investments in reproductive health, education and gender equality reduce poverty?

The demographic window

Lower fertility and slower population growth temporarily increase the relative size of the workforce, opening an historic, one-time only demographic window. With fewer dependent children and older dependents relative to a larger, healthier working-age population, countries can make additional investments that can spur economic growth and help reduce poverty. Within another generation, the window closes again, as the population ages and dependency increases once more. If jobs are generated for the working population, this demographic bonus results in higher productivity, savings and growth. In East Asia, where poverty has dropped dramatically, this demographic bonus is estimated to account for about one third of the regions unprecedented economic growth from 1965 to 1990. In the poorest countries, where fertility remains high, the demographic window will not open for some time, but investments now in reproductive health services can hasten its arrival and ensure future dividends.

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