On the heels of the United Nations’ announcement that the global population crossed the 7 billion mark on Oct. 31, a timely report from the organization’s population division has broken down that big number to document where most births are taking place and the stresses they add to life among the world’s poorest people.
While populations have stabilized or even shrunk in some places, the new findings challenge optimistic assertions by those who use global averages — overlooking huge regional and economic disparities — to argue that fears of unsustainable population growth are unwarranted. In reality, UN figures point to how lopsided population growth may have profound effects not only locally but also on global measures of poverty, hunger, health, youth unemployment, conflict, migration and environmental degradation, among other factors.
At the individual level, billions of people could suffer extreme hardships in this century as income gaps widen and deepen and future generations have little hope of better lives. Poor countries, already lacking the resources that are needed to provide education, health services, clean water and sanitation to their people have few chances of catching up.
In its survey of 196 countries, the UN population division, part of the Secretariat’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, acknowledged that over four decades the world had indeed experienced steep reductions in fertility, defined as the number of children a woman has in her reproductive lifetime. Since the 1970s, the median level of total fertility in the world fell by more than half, to 2.4 children from 5.6.
Now, on a global average, people also marry later (or not at all) and the use of modern contraceptives has risen sharply since family-planning organizations became major players in family life in the 1960s and 1970s. Women can space the birth of children and choose how many they want.
Small drops in least-developed nations
That picture is clouded, however, when the focus narrows to the local level, says the population division survey, the World Fertility Report: 2009, which was published in November 2011 after months of extensive collection and analysis of data from countries at all ranks of development. Three time periods were chosen for comparison in the study: 1970-1979, 1990-1999 and 2000-2007.
“Fertility levels among the least developed countries remain high and have undergone only moderate decline since 1970s,” the report concludes. “Among the 39 least developed countries with data for the three time periods, the median total fertility declined from 6.5 children per woman in the 1970s to 5.4 children per woman in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 2000-2007, more than two-thirds of the least developed countries still had total fertility higher than 5.0 children per woman.”
These figures contrast sharply with those of developed countries, where fears of shrinking populations have become an obsession that often dominates discussions about global growth and obscures the situation in poor nations. Even if fertility levels fall in poor countries, the base population continues to grow much larger as millions more young women enter their reproductive years.
“By the first decade of the twenty-first century, none of the developed countries had total fertility above 2.1 children per woman, and only three (Iceland, New Zealand and the United States) had levels above 2.0 children per woman,” the report says. A fertility rate of 2.1 children is known as the replacement rate, at which two parents are replaced statistically by their children (one a girl).
Among the most developed countries, about half have fertility rates below 1.4. Some more rapidly developing countries are also reporting rates at or below replacement level. (The UN calculates the US fertility rate at 2.07, with immigration a growth factor.)
Contraceptives in demand
Rapid population growth is further guaranteed in the 49 least developed countries by continued high rates of births to adolescents, calculated by the UN in this report as women 15 to 19 years old.
The least developed countries, where most of this century’s fastest population growth will take place, show a markedly different picture.
“Among developed countries the median adolescent birth rate dropped from 34 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in the 1970s to 14 births per 1,000 women in the first decade of the twenty-first century,” the report says. Among rapidly developing countries, the drop was from 79 births per 1,000 women to 50 births.
“Given already high levels of adolescent fertility in the 1970s in the least developed countries, the declines over time were marginal,” the report shows. “The median adolescent birth rate changed from 151 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 in the 1970s to 123 births in 2000-2007.”
The population division report notes that governments in poorer countries are increasing their backing for family-planning programs as a factor in development. At the same time, there have been steadily rising grassroots demands for contraception in those countries, and they are not being met because of a drop in contributions from donor nations.
The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, calculates that more than 215 million women want access to family planning but cannot get it, making it hard to argue now that contraception is being foisted on the poorest people by outsiders.
(A World Fertility Policies 2011 wall chart and accompanying data can be downloaded free from the UN. )
In Egypt, fertility plateaus
A phenomenon outside the scope of the UN report but being discussed more often in some major developing countries is the stalling of fertility declines after years of steady decline.
Egypt is a good example. There, demographers and social scientists say that this “plateau-ing” of fertility levels at around 2.8 children (down from 5.5 in the 1980s) has multiple causes, but one may be a dearth of challenging economic or career opportunities open to qualified women, who are then more likely to have more children than their education level or economic circumstances would suggest.
“That raises the question about why it is that women who are supposed to be empowered have not translated their empowerment into the level of fertility that people expect?” said Hoda Rashad, research professor and director of the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo, in an interview in April 2011. “Part of what we study now is, what is the nature of work that makes you decide to have two and not three? We are looking for the women who wanted two and achieved two, and what is so different among them.”
Complicating the questions about stalled fertility declines are new concerns among Egyptian women as to how their personal lives might be restricted depending on decisions that a future Islamist-dominated government might make. The prospects of both career opportunities and family planning choices for women have taken on renewed urgency.
“After the revolution, the issue of fertility has not been a priority,” Rashad said, echoing Egyptian demographers who warn that the country already faces shortages of water and farmland. “Some people are asking, Do we need family planning?” Rashad said. “People don’t understand the worst scenarios about national population growth.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.