Commentary: Investing in Slowing Population
October 10, 2004 | Commentary | Population & Reproductive Health, Higher Education in Russia & Africa

Originally published in Boston Globe on October 10, 2004, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton discusses slowing world population growth.

In 1994, 179 United Nations member states met at the international Conference on Population and Development in Cano, where they agreed on a bold plan to achieve economic development and slow population growth in 20 years by investing in reproductive healthcare and education. Against long odds, the plan is working. Sexual and reproductive rights have become central to development policy, healthcare, and post-conflict reconstruction. In 1994, the world's population of 5.6 billion was growing at 93 million per year, but today the rate of growth is 77 million per year, 17 percent slower.

Despite this early progress, however, serious challenges remain: Overall population is still expected to increase by almost one-third in the next 50 years: the commitment to meeting reproductive health needs is faltering in some countries: and there is inadequate funding for education and outreach.
Last week, more than 100 world leaders released a statement reaffirming the importance of the plan and urging the international community, national governments, and private philanthropic organizations to give population and development issues the priority -- and funding -- they deserve. I signed the statement because the progress that has been made is real. But it is fragile. Lasting change will require patient action and steady resolve: now is a time to redouble our efforts, not rest on early accomplishments.

To reenergize global efforts, the United States and other nations should immediately make good on their Cairo pledge. All 179 countries pledged to invest $365 billion in family planning and reproductive healthcare before 2015. But so far, investment in reproductive health is 70 percent behind schedule. Is that a reflection of less concern for women's health, for population growth, for the inextricable link between sensible population policies and poverty alleviation? Does it suggest an absence of leadership from the United States and other wealthy nations just four years after agreeing to the ambitious Millennium Development Goals?

Surely it cannot mean that population is no longer a critical problem, no longer needing concentrated action and resources. If anything, greater attention to reproductive health issues is required for a world in balance: Half of the world is under the age of 25, the largest youth generation in history. These 3.2 billion young people deserve the services and information that will allow them to make responsible decisions about sexual behavior and childbearing.

We already know the outlines for success. Central to the Cairo consensus was the recognition that when women have access to good information and healthcare, they make sensible choices. Education also matters. The more educated a woman is, the more she improves her family's health and income, delays her age of marriage, and lowers the number of children she has.

Satisfying reproductive health needs is also essential if the world is to make good on the promise of economic development for the world's poorest peoples. Provocative new research indicates a strong line between falling birth rates and economic growth. Known as the "demographic dividend," fewer births boost the proportion of young adults who are capable of working without the burden of additional dependents. If managed right, the investment dollars freed up by declining fertility can be used to strengthen economic development and social welfare. Evidence from South Asia suggests that as much of one-third of its growth in the 1990s was the result of such dividends.

The window of opportunity is beginning to open elsewhere, because evidence also demonstrates that throughout the developing world, the number of children women want is falling. In fact, the ideal is lower than the average birth rate of most countries. Meeting these reproductive health needs serves the women themselves, their families, and the greater good.
In order to satisfy the demand, however, a variety of programs proven on a smaller scale need to be expanded in order to reach far more people. This requires strategic partnerships between government and civil society.

For example, in Nigeria, MacArthur Foundation grants support work by nonprofit groups there to develop a comprehensive sexuality education curricumlum. The federal government has mandated the curriculum’s use throughout the school system, so now our grantees are helping state governments train their teachers.
There are many such examples of local action works. But although private and nongovernmental actors are important in the global fight against poverty and inequality, they cannot do it alone. Real commitment will only be demonstrated when the governments of the world show their leadership by embracing programs that work.

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