Investing in People and Equity to Build a World of Opportunity for All

08 February 2012

Presentation of UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, at CDU/CSU Conference on sustainable development in Berlin

Honorable members of Parliament,
Colleagues and friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to be part of this important discussion.

Three months ago the world’s population surpassed 7 billion. Reaching this milestone can be seen as a challenge, an opportunity and a call to action.

The issue of population is critical for humanity and for the Earth. But population is not about numbers; it’s about people; it’s about equity, opportunity and social justice.

In any country you go to, from the developed to the developing, the questions of equitable access to resources and opportunities always confront us.

From the Arab Spring to the sit-ins on Wall Street, the people are demanding change. Many of them are young, part of the largest youth generation our world has ever known, and they are determined to transform politics, culture and the economy in their own societies and beyond.

Demographic dynamics in the world of 7 billion

The challenges ahead are formidable, but they are not the same everywhere in the world. In fact, our world of 7 billion presents a complex picture of trends and paradoxes.

To simplify the picture, there are three common population scenarios:

First, in countries with high population growth and low incomes, such as sub-Saharan Africa, many adolescent girls and women are unable determine their fertility, with population outstripping economic growth and the ability of health care and education systems to serve the people.

Second, in many middle income countries where population growth has stabilized, issues of urbanization and migration factor heavily into population dynamics, with impacts labour trends, consumption patterns, family compositions and more.

And third, in Japan, South Korea, and many European countries, Germany among them (TFR 1.36), fertility has fallen below the replacement level. Governments in these countries are challenged by future shortages of labour and productivity, which potentially threaten the quality of life for the ageing generations.

Let me elaborate on these scenarios a bit.

Based on the UN Population Division’s most recent projections, the world’s population will reach its peak early in the next century, at around 10 billion.

However, small changes in our assumptions can have large consequences.

On the whole, girls’ education, women’s empowerment, and better women’s and children’s health, including modern family planning and reproductive health, have dropped fertility to about half of what it was 40 years ago.

If the same trend continues, fertility will go down by another 23 per cent in the next 40 years. But for each percentage point that we fall short of that 23 percent reduction, the world population at the end of the century will be almost 750 million larger.

But the biggest challenge is not population growth at the global level.

Germany and Ethiopia are often used as examples of two countries with roughly equal population size but radically different demographic trends. These trends mean that, while Germany’s population is likely to remain relatively stable, or slightly decrease, Ethiopia’s population is projected to nearly double by 2050.

This wide variety of demographic trends also implies a wide variety of social and economic challenges.

The populations of many countries, including those of European countries, but also of many developing countries, are getting older. China, in particular, will face enormous challenges with a share of elderly persons that will rise from 14 to 34 per cent during the next 40 years.

Another major demographic challenge concerns urbanization. In 1950, about two thirds of the world population was living in rural areas, and this is still the case in the poorest countries. However, within the next 40 years about 2/3 of the world population will be urban. For example, the urban population of Asia will almost double and Africa’s will almost triple.

Urbanization in developing countries is often associated with social, economic and environmental challenges, but it can also be an important driver of sustainable development. In urban areas people tend to consume less energy than in rural areas. In urban areas, governments can deliver essential infrastructure and services more efficiently.

Policies designed to stop urban growth have not always been produced positive outcomes. In development planning, the task is to take advantage of urbanization that is inevitable.

I have outlined some of the biggest demographic trends in the world. With these trends in mind, we must ask ourselves what actions we should take today to chart a path towards development that is sustainable socially, economically and environmentally.

Sustainable development: Focus on equity and people

Last September, when the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the General Assembly, he said, ”development is not sustainable unless it is equitable and serves all people.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

We at UNFPA continue to emphasize that people and the principle of equity must be kept at the centre of sustainable development. It means recognizing the need to invest in women and young people and promoting human rights. It means increasing equity to build a world of opportunity for all.

This June, in Rio, the world community seeks renewed political commitment and a new push for sustainable development.

You will hear a great deal of talk about economic growth and environment, which are crucial issues. But you cannot forget the third pillar of sustainable development – the social pillar.

This means promoting human rights, sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and empowerment of youth. And, these are also the core issues in addressing demographic dynamics, which in turn have a huge impact on the entire development agenda, including the very basic issues of poverty eradication and food security.

FAO’s latest projections show that to feed a population of 9 billion – which we are likely to reach before mid-century – will require a 70 per cent increase in agricultural output. Similarly, countries will need to increase the production of many other essential goods and services, including health and education; clothing and housing. Raising the output of the agricultural industrial and services sector depend, amongst others, crucially on energy and water.

The paramount challenge of this century is to meet the needs of 7 billion human beings now – and the billions to come – while protecting the intricate balance of nature that sustains life.

It’s clear that we need a swift transition to a green economy.

At the same time, we must invest in people and address population dynamics through human-rights based policies that are practical and effective.

I would argue that the following three key actions are critical:

First, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care; meet unmet need for family planning; and empower women to independently decide the number, timing and spacing of their children.

Second, invest adequately in young people – their health, education and job opportunities – and especially ensure that girls are not left behind in these efforts.

These targeted investments, combined with reproductive health, will reduce infant, child and maternal mortality, slow population growth and help people break out of poverty.

Third, use population data and projections to plan for rural, urban and national development and to pro-actively address emerging economic, social and environmental challenges.

UNFPA is committed to supporting countries in addressing population dynamics through human-rights based policies that are anchored in the Programme of Action that was agreed at the International Conference on Population and Development and also encouraged by the Millennium Development Goals.

UNFPA will continue to promote universal access to sexual and reproductive health care and family planning, encourage investment in education, including sexuality education, and support the empowerment of women and youth.

Today, the world is not only bound together by trade and financial flows; it is also bound together by demographic change, environmental change and resource scarcity. What happens in other countries in any of these areas is of great importance to all of us, no matter where we live.

While there is an increasing awareness of environmental change and resource scarcity as global challenges, we must also recognize that demographic change is a global challenge. No country or development agency can adequately address these challenges on its own. Coordinated action is needed to provide countries with more effective and integrated support in adapting to change and realizing any opportunities.

We count on you to support us in our efforts to raise awareness of the developmental implications of population dynamics, and to encourage the consideration of population dynamics in international and national development strategies and policies.

Over the next months, we must ensure the integration of population issues in the processes that lead up to Rio+20, the conference itself, the outcome document and the institutional follow-up mechanism.


The milestone of 7 billion was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that we must act now. Luckily, we have a strategy to guide the way.

In 1994, world leaders from almost 180 countries came together in Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development, and established a strategy for countries to put the health, rights, dignity and well-being of people at the centre of development. This became UNFPA’s mission, and it is as critical today, if not more so, than it was back in Cairo.

The direction we took was considered groundbreaking, as the population community shifted its focus from numbers to human rights. We have made much progress by addressing the needs of youth, girls and women, and by providing comprehensive reproductive health care, including voluntary family planning.

With the 20th anniversary of the ICPD rapidly approaching, the data indeed show that the road to equitable economic and social development runs straight through the centre of our mandate at UNFPA.

But our work is far from done. There is so much more we must accomplish. And we need continued support from donors, greater commitment from programme countries and indeed from the whole international community to fulfill our mandate.

Consider that:

There are 215 million women of child-bearing age in developing countries who would use family planning, if only they had access to it.

There are millions of adolescent girls and boys in the developing world who have too little access to sexuality education and counseling and information about how to prevent pregnancies or protect themselves from HIV.

We must tear down economic, legal, social and cultural barriers to put women and men and boys and girls on an equal footing in all spheres of life.

We must strengthen health care systems.

We should invest in the health and education of the world’s 1.8 billion young people and make them into entrepreneurs who foster sustainable development. This would yield enormous returns in economic growth for generations to come.

For it is not only from a human rights perspective that we must accelerate our efforts. We know what needs to be done. We must maintain the support and the will to follow through.

With planning and the right investments in people—particularly young women and men—today, we can have thriving, sustainable cities and communities; productive labour forces that fuel social and economic growth; youth populations that contribute to the well-being of their societies; and communities where the elderly are productive, healthy, economically secure and living dignified lives.

UNFPA staff are committed to these issues and passionate about our mission.

In a world of 7 billion and growing, UNFPA is committed to focus efforts towards delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

I thank you.


We use cookies and other identifiers to help improve your online experience. By using our website you agree to this. To learn more, including how to change your settings, see our cookie policy