Sustainable Development and Population Dynamics: Placing People at the Centre

19 June 2013

Statement by Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, UNFPA's Deputy Executive Director of Managment, at the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals

Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The world population has surpassed the 7 billion mark and is projected to grow to over 9 billion by 2043.

Population trends today are characterized by an increasing divergence across countries and regions. Whereas many of the poorer countries continue to be characterized by rapid population growth, others that are more advanced in their demographic transition are experiencing rapid population ageing and even population decline in some cases. Furthermore, the world is witnessing increasingly complex international migration patterns and many countries continue to experience very high rates of urbanization.

These population dynamics influence development at the national and sub-national levels, but also at regional and global levels.

Thus, the challenge of the century is to solve the problem of meeting the increasing needs and expectations of a growing population while at the same time modifying the current production and consumption patterns to achieve a more sustainable development model and address the links between development and rapid population change.

Why population dynamics matters for sustainable development

Population growth, population ageing and decline, as well as migration and urbanization, affect virtually all development objectives that are on top of national and global development agendas. They affect consumption, production, employment, income distribution, poverty and social protections, including pensions; they also complicate our efforts to ensure universal access to health, education, housing, sanitation, water, food and energy.

Population growth, in particular, places increasing pressures on the planet’s resources -- water, forests, land and the earth’s atmosphere -- contributing to climate change and challenging environmental sustainability. However, population dynamics do not only affect critical development objectives; they are themselves affected by social, economic and environmental changes.

Population dynamics do not only pose challenges, they also provide important opportunities for more sustainable development. A fall in fertility levels and slower population growth, for example, leads to an increased concentration of the population in the working age range, which can enable countries to reap a demographic bonus and jumpstart economic development.

Migration can be an important enabler of social and economic development. Today, more than a billion people rely on international and internal migration to escape from poverty and conflict, adapt to environmental and economic shocks, and improve the income, health, and education of their families. Annual remittances to developing countries alone approach $500 billion; triple the amount of ODA, while potential savings from reducing migration costs could be of a similar scale.

Urbanization can be a powerful driver of sustainable development. Higher population density enables governments to more easily deliver essential infrastructure and services in urban areas at relatively low cost per capita. Liveable and sustainable cities have knock-on effects in terms of providing rural populations with greater access to services such as education and healthcare, while also empowering them economically. Furthermore, urbanization can produce energy savings, particularly in the housing and transportation sectors.

However, the benefits of demographic transitions, urbanization and migration do not materialize automatically and inevitably. Whether population dynamics pose challenges or bring opportunities depends largely on the policies that are in force.

How to address the challenges and harness the opportunities of population dynamics to promote sustainable development

Population dynamics are the result of individual choices and opportunities. To address and harness the opportunities of population dynamics for sustainable development, countries should seek to enlarge, not restrict, individual rights. Countries should work to expand people’s choices, resourcefulness, creativity and resilience, by adopting policies that are human rights-based and gender-responsive.

Human rights-based and gender-responsive policies, such as promoting universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including voluntary family planning, and to education, including comprehensive sexuality education, can make a world of difference for people and societies. Together, these measures help to avoid unwanted pregnancies, reduce teenage pregnancies, curb infant and maternal mortality, and reduce gender-based violence and unsafe abortions. They also help to combat HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, which continue to claim millions of lives every year.

Rights-based and gender-responsive policies are also critical in a context of low fertility and rapid population ageing or population decline. Policies addressing low fertility should promote a better work life balance and ensure access to essential services, such as child care and social protections. Furthermore, non-discriminatory policies are important to allow older persons to contribute fully to society while at the same time receiving the care, services and social protections they need. Fiscal policies, social protections and non financial support systems for families can influence decisions about family size.

A human rights approach is also crucial in migration policies, which should be designed in full respect for, and protection of, the human rights of migrants and migrant workers. Such policies can generate large economic and social gains from migration, while ensuring decent living and working conditions for migrants. A rights-based approach is essential, as well, in choosing policies for addressing urbanization and sustainable settlement patterns.

How the post-2015 development agenda should reflect the actions needed to harness the opportunities that population dynamics present to sustainable development


In today’s world there is no place for coercive measures of population control or for setting demographic targets. Such policies are contrary to the respect for human rights, and experience has shown that such measures are likely to be counterproductive in the long run.

The wide consultations on population dynamics have suggested unequivocally the importance of mainstreaming the following priorities in the framework for the post 2015 development agenda:

1. Strengthen the formation of human capital throughout the life course, with a particular focus on health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights; education, including comprehensive sexuality education; and poverty reduction, decent work and social protections; as well as a particular emphasis on human rights, non-discrimination, equal opportunities, women’s empowerment and youth participation.

Whether countries are able to seize the benefits associated with a slowdown of population growth, as well as the benefits that can derive from population ageing, depends on a commitment to investment in human capital throughout the life course. Indeed, the development of human capital is important at all stages of the life course.

A concerted effort is needed to ensure that young people have access to education, sexual and reproductive health care, and decent work opportunities. Investment in the formation of human capital, which strengthens the employability of young people, must be complemented by economic policies that promote productive investment and contribute to the creation of employment opportunities for young people.

To seize the benefits that can come with population ageing, countries will need to promote the active and healthy ageing of the older persons. This calls for adequate access to social protections, including pensions and health care, as well as investment in continuing education and lifelong learning, complemented by policies that counter discrimination against older persons.

2. Promote the development benefits of migration, with a focus on ensuring the rights and safety of migrants and combating discrimination against migrants, and a perspective on realizing the developmental benefits of migration for both sending and receiving countries.

Migration allows people to escape from desperate situations and to seek more promising lives. Migration and the resources it generates, in the form of diaspora investments, workers’ remittances, and knowledge and skills transfers, can enhance individual capabilities and human development at the household level — at both origin and destination — and can also contribute to local and national development, in part by promoting resilience in the face of economic and environmental risks and shocks.

However, many migrants are still forced to leave their homes or are victims of trafficking, and too many lack basic human rights and access to essential services. Migrants — especially more vulnerable groups such as such as women, children, adolescents and youth, undocumented migrants, domestic workers, and temporary and low-skilled workers — often lack adequate protections, especially with respect to their labour rights, access to justice, health care and other public services.

To reap the developmental benefits of migration, countries need to establish comprehensive, balanced and inclusive national policies on migration, and at the same time to strengthen bilateral, regional and global partnerships on migration. Countries should also work to reduce the social and economic costs of migration, including by facilitating the transfer of remittances and lowering the costs of such transfers. Finally, countries should take measures to ensure the portability of acquired rights and benefits across borders, including old-age pensions.

3. Create equitable, liveable and sustainable cities that can accommodate increased demands for livelihoods and services, while strengthening the linkages between rural and urban areas, and promoting the sustainable development of rural communities. By 2050 the global proportion of people living in cities and towns is expected to rise to about 67 per cent. The rapidly increasing dominance of cities places the process of urbanization among the most significant global social transformations of the twenty-first century.

By anticipating urbanization, leveraging the advantages of agglomeration, and managing urban growth as part of their respective development strategies, central governments and local authorities can address the challenges of urban growth. Cities have always been centers for development, innovation and the arts, and if well managed cities make an important contribution to social, economic and environmental sustainability.

4. Strengthen national capacities to collect, use and analyze population data and projections. People-centred development strategies must systematically consider changes in the number, age and location of people; and use population data and projections to inform development goals, targets and indicators, as well as policies and programmes. Data producers should systematically disaggregate relevant socio-economic data by sex, age and location.

To date, all of the issues briefs prepared by the Technical Support Team for consideration by the Open Working Group have underscored the importance of population dynamics. The challenge of reducing poverty and promoting human wellbeing, while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of the natural environment, is inseparable from population patterns and trends.

The means of harnessing the opportunities offered by population dynamics will need to rely on more effective and stronger global, regional and national partnerships, with an emphasis on knowledge sharing, and on technical and financial assistance that will enable countries to adopt evidence- and rights-based policies informed by population data, projections and analysis.

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