Statement of Executive Director to the Commission on Population and Development

3 April 2017

Presented by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin to the 50th session of the Commission on Population and Development on changing population age structures and sustainable development.

[As prepared for delivery]

Madame Chairperson,
Members of the Commission,       
Distinguished delegates,                 
Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address this 50th Session of the Commission on Population and Development.

As you know, the world has seen dramatic shifts in population and development since the Commission first met 70 years ago.

A global revolution in health has improved child survival and added decades to average life expectancy.

The invention of the pill and the proliferation of modern family planning services across the globe marked a major step forward for the empowerment of women and couples.

The global average fertility rate has fallen by half.

There are five billion more people on the planet, and they are increasingly urban and mobile.

And this Commission – in assessing the implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action since 1994 – has steadfastly advanced one of the most human rights-centered, aspirational, and integrated visions of human development ever.

The ICPD shifted the field of population and development from a focus on population crisis, targets and numbers to one focused on human rights, sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and the empowerment of women.

This shift foreshadowed the Millennium Development Goals, and the 2030 Agenda’s transformational focus on equality, inclusion and human rights.

Changing Population Age Structure

This year, we gather to discuss changing population age structure and how this affects the achievement of sustainable development.

Overall – the world is ageing. In 1950, the median age of the world’s population was 23.5 years. Now’s it’s almost 30, and by 2050 it will likely be over 36.

Yet the status and pace of population ageing are very different between countries.

Countries are further apart from one another in median age than ever before.

Addressing Diversity between Countries

These differences in age structure reflect differences in economic development and health – and remind us of countries’ very different starting points at the outset of the 2030 Agenda.

Yet despite these differences, never have countries and their people been more connected – through the internet, markets, the flow of people, shared responsibilities in times of crisis, and recognition of environmental change on a global scale.

This offers boundless opportunities for countries to work together, especially on demographic transition and the investments needed to advance health and human rights in both young and ageing countries, and further promote the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.

The Secretary-General’s reports for this Commission celebrate many such examples of mutual learning and collaboration between countries.

Uniting this Commission

This Commission is united by the vision and values of the ICPD Programme of Action, echoed in the Key Actions of 1999, the ICPD Beyond 2014, and the 2030 Agenda – that sustainable development cannot be advanced without assuring the human rights and dignity of all people, at all ages, especially women and girls.

We are united by our common aspirations to reduce discrimination against women. Despite all our progress, this discrimination is manifest daily in violence, trafficking, child marriage, female genital mutilation, maternal death and morbidity, a persistent gender wage gap, the double burden of work and family, and the poverty of older women.

Across all countries, young and old, people must navigate transitions from childhood to adulthood to old age. Governments can enable or constrain those experiences.

Ensuring that everyone can build their capabilities and shape their future means eliminating barriers faced by countless young people. These barriers include child, marriage, adolescent pregnancy, loss of schooling, poor sexual and reproductive health, and lack of control over their own bodies.

It means finding ways to stem the drift towards informal work and exclusionary economic growth.

It means providing opportunities for people, beginning in youth and extending across the age spectrum, to achieve their aspirations and balance work and family life.

It means lifelong learning, since economies are changing and people maintain their capacity to learn and adapt throughout their lives.

It means focusing on the overall ICPD agenda to ensure that older persons enjoy the blessings of a longer, healthier life.

If the Commission is able to deliver on this, it sets the stage for each country to achieve transformational returns from their population age structure.

Youthful Populations and the Demographic Dividend

Let me speak now about how this focus can deliver rapid gains in sustainable development in countries with youthful populations.

We are seeing high numbers of unemployed and systematically disempowered youth around the world, their lives destabilized by lack of opportunity and security.

At the same time, young people worldwide have digital knowledge about global inequalities and the ways in which their rights are denied. In such contexts, young people are often perceived as threats to peace and security.

The demographic dividend offers a fundamentally different way of viewing the prospects and pathways for sustainable development in countries with high proportions of young people.

Expanded investments in empowerment, including in sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and quality education for adolescents and youth, have lifelong effects. And when such investments extend broadly across the population, they result in a surge of human capital.

When this surge coincides with a demographic bulge of young people owing to declining fertility, the result is an especially high proportion of the population with better health and more education moving into its most productive years.

If these young people are met with real opportunities for decent work, the demographic dividend of accelerated development can be reaped in the course of a generation.

Ageing, Social Protection and the Second Demographic Dividend

If we can truly deliver these rights and prospects for young people, they will be healthier and better off as they move through their working ages.

The health of middle-aged and older persons, and their ability to continue to work and live long, productive lives, depends on the investments that they received earlier in life.

A wealthier and healthier older population is well positioned to invest in the younger generation, continuing the positive cycle of advancing health, nutrition, education and opportunity.

And again, the right investments can result in a sustained development boom amidst population ageing. This is known as the second demographic dividend.

But first, we need to readjust our societies and expectations to lives that continue decades after what, in some countries, has been the traditional “age of retirement”.

This means strengthening supports so that the burden of ageing is not placed on the backs of either older persons themselves, or women, who bear disproportionate responsibilities for the care of older people.

It will be an ongoing project, for example, to balance adequate pensions with broad coverage and fiscal sustainability.

In all of these efforts, our north star must be the needs, rights and capabilities of older persons.

The Centrality of Population Data

I would like to conclude by speaking about a keystone of the ICPD-based vision of development, now fully integrated within the 2030 Agenda, and a vital means for understanding and planning for changing population age structure:  population data.

The world is embarking on the 2020 round of censuses, in which we will endeavor to count every person on the planet.

These data underpin all national development planning. Yet too many countries under-use their census, and fail to generate national or sub-national projections of their own population, which provide critical information on how age structure is changing, and where and when communities will age most quickly.

Meeting our commitment to leave no one behind depends on population data.

Let us come together at this Commission to collectively reflect on what these data are telling us, and what they mean for the future we want.

Let us set a standard for shared, open information that can form the basis of collaborative, collective efforts to advance freedom and opportunity for all, at all ages, which is, in turn, the foundation for achieving sustainable development.

UNFPA has played a critical role in advancing the work of the Commission over these many years, in partnership with the Secretariat, and we stand ready to continue this work together.

Thank you.