OECD-UNFPA-MOHW-KIHASA Joint Conference on Low Fertility

19 October 2017

Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the Joint Conference on Low Fertility, Challenges and Responses in the Era of Ageing Population, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

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Mr. José Ángel Gurría Treviño, Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,
Mr. Masaji Matsuyama, Minister for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens of Japan,
Mr. Hiromitsu Shimada, Director-General for Policy on Declining Birthrate and Aging Society of Japan, and
Mr. Kangho Lee, Director-General of the Bureau of Population and Child Policy of the Republic of Korea

As the newly appointed Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, it is my great pleasure to participate in this important gathering to discuss low fertility and related concerns. UNFPA is proud to co-host this meeting.  I would like to express my gratitude to the Ministry of Health and Welfare of the Republic of Korea for initiating and organizing this conference, and to the OECD and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs for their partnership in this endeavor.

We are an agency with eyes, ears and feet on the ground in more than 150 countries, and let me assure you that low fertility and population ageing are growing concerns around the world. If we work together on these issues, we can help countries address their concerns in a coherent and integrated manner, and I welcome this meeting as a first step in this direction.

The transition towards lower fertility rates and ageing societies is no longer an issue of developed countries only, and the sooner other countries anticipate these trends the better.

Falling fertility rates are a by-product of sustainable development, as they reflect declining mortality rates, gains in healthy life expectancy, greater participation of women in the labour market, and broader access to health and family planning.

In turn, declining fertility rates alter the age structure of populations. With average fertility rates dropping below the “replacement” level of 2.1 children per woman, we see an increasing share of older persons in a growing number of countries.

Recognizing these demographic transitions as an opportunity and not as a threat is paramount, and falling fertility levels do not necessarily stand in the way of a second demographic dividend.

If well addressed, ageing and low fertility may lead to better policies: from effective prioritization of vulnerable groups and fully harnessing the experience and energy of elderly persons to developing more inclusive communities.

Now, more than before, reducing lifelong inequities will be our best bet for development. And in delivering this, the issues that UNFPA stands for will be critical: sexual and reproductive health and rights and ensuring that each young person’s potential is fulfilled are key in ensuring a productive workforce that effectively offsets a shrinking workforce.

Capitalizing on the creative potential of all persons must be the guiding mission for ensuring innovation where low fertility prevails. 

This challenges us to collectively consider whether life’s opportunities are shared with all people in society, or whether some are indeed left behind.

One of the most challenging questions that low fertility has prompted is with regard to the role of women in society.   Women’s participation in the labour force has both boosted economic growth, but is also questioned as a possible reason for declining fertility.  This question deserves careful research.

Some of the best evidence shows that women’s labour force participation is not directly linked to fertility in consistent ways. 

Where women’s work is highly insecure, career advancement does not accommodate family life, and child care is weak – women’s labour force participation is more likely to lead to lower fertility.

But in economies where women have greater job security and career progression, along with excellent family benefits and child care – women’s greater participation in the labour force does not necessarily lead to lower fertility

This is a valuable area of analysis, and UNFPA would welcome the opportunity to work on these issues with many of the experts here today.

Finally, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 – which was endorsed by more than 170 Member States – offers clear vision and values on many of these issues.

On the rights of women, the ICPD is clear that all persons, including women and girls, have rights equal to those of men, in terms of education, access to training, equal pay for equal work, and the right to decent work.

With regard to reproductive rights, the ICPD underscores the singular importance of ensuring the right of women and men to decide freely the number, timing and spacing of their children. Incentives and disincentives constitute a violation of those rights.

If countries want to lift fertility levels, it should be done through a deeper understanding of the work-life policies that may ease the double burden of home and career.  This is possibly unique in each country, but there seem to be some universal truths.  Creating a world where productive life and reproductive life are in harmony – is the goal of UNFPA.

More and more countries are looking to UNFPA for support in responding to low fertility and population aging. Let me assure you that we hear these concerns and that UNFPA is committed to supporting countries in addressing them. To this end, we are expanding our Global Programme on Ageing. The Republic of Korea is already contributing to the Global Programme, and we would like to invite others, including Japan, to join our efforts.

The Republic of Korea has made investing in health, including family planning; education; and women’s empowerment top priorities, and it is an important partner for UNFPA in promoting coherent, integrated responses to population ageing.

Building on this foundation, UNFPA will establish a permanent liaison office in Seoul, to explore mutual opportunities for research, knowledge sharing and technical cooperation on issues of interest.

UNFPA looks forward to supporting these efforts, and to leveraging its global presence, network and convening power to broker and support regional and global cooperation.

Many countries look to the organizations and countries assembled here for guidance. The Republic of Korea and Japan, together with UNFPA, the OECD and its Member States, have a wealth of experience and knowledge. Let us join forces to extract and share lessons and good practices, and help countries face the future with confidence.

Thank you.