Note No. 5717
4 March 2002
Note to Correspondents
ARE INTERMEDIATE-FERTILITY COUNTRIES HEADING FOR POPULATION DECLINE?
NEW GUIDELINES IMPLY MAJOR IMPLICATIONS FOR WORLD POPULATION SIZE
United Nations to Hold Expert Group Meeting on ‘Fertility Transition,’ 11-14 March
For decades, demographers have assumed that fertility rates in developing countries will eventually fall to replacement level -- about 2 children per woman -- and then stabilize at that level. However, over the past decade, more and more developing countries have joined developed countries in seeing their fertility levels fall below this replacement fertility floor, challenging the assumption that there is some inherent magnet drawing populations to a replacement-level equilibrium.
In a break with traditional thinking, and one with enormous implications, the United Nations Population Division is proposing new guidelines for projecting fertility. The proposed guidelines, to be applied to the 2002 revision of the official United Nations world population estimates and projections, envision that countries currently in the midst of the transition from high to low fertility -– the “intermediate-fertility” countries –- will reach fertility levels below replacement before 2050.
The past few decades have witnessed dramatic declines in fertility levels. Since 1965, world fertility has declined from 5.0 to 2.7 births per woman. Many countries have recorded striking reductions in fertility rates to levels below those needed to ensure population replacement. Given that 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in those countries that have begun but not completed their transition from high to low fertility, and the large impact of fertility on projected population size, it is crucial to make a well-informed projection of fertility in intermediate-fertility countries. Will fertility stagnate? Will it decline to around the replacement level? Or will fertility follow the European pattern and decline to below replacement level? The outcome of this fertility transition will be a vital determinant of the size of world population in the twenty-first century.
Today there are 74 countries with intermediate-level fertility, i.e., above 2.1 and below 5 children per woman. This group includes some of the most populous countries in the world, such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, and Philippines. Even if below-replacement levels are achieved in future, the current, moderately high fertility levels in these countries mean that several
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billion additional people are expected before population size peaks. Of course, the assumption of future below-replacement fertility for these countries is contingent upon broad social and economic development as well as continued increases in family planning prevalence. Nevertheless, in the long run, if these 74 countries and current low-fertility countries remain below replacement-fertility levels, then their populations and that of the world as a whole will begin to decline.
To involve the population community in assessing the new assumptions, the United Nations is convening an Expert Group Meeting on “Completing the Fertility Transition” in New York from 11 to 14 March 2002. The meeting is organized by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and funded in part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The meeting brings together experts from international organizations, universities and research centres, with a large representation from the countries under consideration.
Media are particularly invited to the opening of the meeting on Monday,
11 March at 10:30 a.m. in Conference Room 6, with a keynote address by Professor John Caldwell of the Australian National University, speaking on “The Contemporary Population Challenge.” Professor Caldwell, an internationally recognized expert on fertility change and the relationship between demographic, social and economic factors, is discussing the interplay between policy and population change, and why governments should continue to be concerned about population growth despite falling fertility. The session will be moderated by Ms. Afsané Bassir Pour, United Nations correspondent for Le Monde.
Subsequent sessions of the meeting address a variety of issues impacting the fertility transition. Topics include: international efforts, including donor funding; the status of women; HIV/AIDS; family structure; education; labour force participation; and national policies and programmes. Debate revolves around whether the impact of these factors will lead intermediate-fertility countries to periods of sustained below-replacement fertility.
The meeting is the third in a series of United Nations Expert Group Meetings on the future of fertility. The first, held in 1997, addressed the situation in countries that already achieved below-replacement fertility; the second, held in 2001, examined prospects for fertility decline in countries that had not yet experienced any significant decline.
Additional information, including background papers and country papers, is available on the Web site of the Population Division at www.unpopulation.org.
For more information and for requests for interviews, please contact Joseph Chamie, Director, Population Division, at 212-963-3179, or Edoardo Bellando, Department of Public Information, at 212-963-8275.
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