UNFPAState of World Population 2002
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C H A P T E R   2
Population Change and People's Choices

Photo: UNICEF/1029/Betty Press

Rwandan mother and sons were reunited in 1994
after a six-month separation caused by civil war.
Around the world, wars and other emergencies
have displaced tens of millions of people.

The 20th century has witnessed unprecedented changes in both population dynamics and the progress of human development. Life opportunities for many women and men around the world have expanded like never before in history. At the same time, much of humanity remains caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, ill health and inequality.

The coexistence of these divergent demographic and social trends makes this a crucial moment of decision about our future. We now have unique opportunities to ensure people’s well-being and human rights on a global scale and reap tremendous economic and social benefits; we can seize these opportunities and break the cycle by acting decisively and providing the necessary resources.

The ICPD in 1994 articulated a comprehensive approach to population and development which addresses many of the fundamental challenges facing the human community
— including poverty alleviation, provision of health care and education, and preservation of the environment. Its emphasis on gender equality and equity and on meeting individual needs, especially needs for reproductive health information and services, represents an important end in itself.

Neither the conference nor the five-year review adopted quantitative goals for population growth, structure or distribution. At the same time, both affirmed that implementing the Programme of Action would contribute to an early stabilization of world population, which, in turn, would make an important contribution to achieving sustainable development.

Where we are today

  • Global population has quadrupled in 100 years, a rate of increase unknown in previous history.
  • Life expectancies are increasing in most countries. A child born today has a better chance than ever before of surviving infancy and living a long, healthy life.
  • There are more young people (over 1 billion aged 15-24) than ever before, and many developing countries have an unprecedented share of the population in their working-age years. At the same time, there are more older people than ever before, and populations are steadily ageing.
  • A growing majority of women and men have the information and means to make choices about the number and spacing of their children.
  • Education has become more accessible, to women as well as men, and its importance more widely appreciated.
  • Communication and travel have become easier, accelerating the flow of ideas and people within and between countries.
  • Women are gaining increasing control over their life choices. In diverse cultural settings, women are demanding equality with men in social and economic participation, decision-making and control of resources.
  • Environmental degradation and climate change, new diseases, social disruption and economic instability all threaten people’s health, livelihoods and security, and are spreading more widely and quickly than ever before. Fortunately, so can opportunity, technology and social progress.

The challenge for the coming years is to accelerate social and economic development, expand women’s and men’s control over their lives, including their reproductive lives, and enable them to enjoy their basic human rights. Meeting these goals will both contribute to and be facilitated by the stabilization of population growth.

Population and Development: New Conclusions

Falling mortality and declining fertility are presenting most developing countries with a one-time window of opportunity in which a higher proportion of the population is of working age than ever before. Faster fertility declines open the window wider, but for a shorter time. Taking advantage of this "demographic bonus" to advance economic development will require wide access to education and health (particularly reproductive and sexual health), information and services, and an end to discrimination against women in social participation and decision-making.

How declining mortality and fertility (and to a much smaller extent, larger populations and higher densities) can spur economic growth is becoming clearer, thanks to better data and methods of analysis. The poorest countries stand to gain the most from fertility and mortality declines if they can exploit the potential for growth.

Increased women’s participation in the formal labour force, which often accompanies and reinforces fertility decline and greater educational opportunity, can also result in economic gains. Future income growth estimates need to take into account women’s work at home and in the informal sector, as well as the now-uncounted costs of natural resource degradation.

Demographic and economic change also affects the proportion of people living in poverty. High fertility in poor countries increases poverty by retarding economic growth and skewing the distribution of income against the poor.

In the early stages of demographic transition, when mortality declines outpace fertility declines in poor households, income differentials between poor and non-poor households may increase. When poor families have fewer children, they have more resources to invest in their children or save, reducing poverty and inequality. In Brazil, 25 per cent of people born in 1970 are poor; it is estimated that 37 per cent would be poor if families in 1970 had been as large as those in 1900. Annual economic growth would have had to be 0.7 per cent higher in per capita gross domestic product to achieve an equivalent reduction in poverty without the lower fertility.

Evidence that high fertility exacerbates poverty justifies investments in reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes as part of a broad social development strategy.

Source: Birdsall, Nancy, Allen C. Kelley and Steven Sinding (eds.). Population Does Matter: Demography, Growth and Poverty in the Developing World (forthcoming) Report of the Symposium on Population Change and Economic Development, a Conference sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Packard Foundation and UNFPA, 2-6 November 1998, Bellagio, Italy.


For more information:
United Nations Population Fund
Information and External Relations Division
220 E. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A.
Tel. 212-297-5020; fax: 212-557-6416
E-mail: ryanw@unfpa.org. Web site: www.unfpa.org