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Getting to 7 billion

Reaching 7 billion is a triumph for humanity. The survival of so many people at one time is possible because of advances in health, education and human development, including safer motherhood.

Seven billion – what does it mean?

When populations were small and scattered, their impact was small. With 7 billion people, human activity has an impact on every inch of the world’s surface, every cubic inch of its air and water, and every species that lives on the earth, under the earth or in the sea.

More-affluent people use the bulk of the resources and make the most impact on the environment. Most of these better-off people are in the industrial countries – but their numbers are growing. The big “emerging economies”, China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, for example, have 3 billion people between them. That’s equal to the population of the entire world only 50 years ago.

Population is actually growing fastest in the poorest countries. The poorest people have the least impact on the environment – but the last thing poor countries want is to stay poor. Defeating poverty, stimulating economic growth and protecting the environment calls for linked strategies, including population policy.

Video: Hans Rosling on global population growth

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From poverty to affluence

In the 1980s, countries in South-east Asia were called the “Asian tigers” because their economies were growing so fast. But in these countries, population growth started slowing down before their economies took off. In the Asian tigers, slower population growth may have triggered economic development, not the other way round.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, these countries invested in health and education, emphasising women’s needs. It became clear that when women could decide for themselves, they would have fewer kids and make sure they had a good start in life. Healthy, educated children would grow into healthy, productive adults.

And with more freedom, more women would go out to work, spend more and save more. With fewer children in school, education standards would rise, and it would take a smaller slice of national wealth. As time went on, there would be more working-age people to support the young and the old. All this was very good for a growing economy.

Today many countries have the opportunity to follow the same path. More women can make their own decisions. Except in the poorest countries, fertility is falling, family size is lower, population is growing more slowly. Investment now in education and health for all, making sure that girls have equal access to both, will create the conditions for rapid, sustainable, economic growth.

Richer countries have promised to help the poorest find the resources. Halving extreme poverty is the purpose of the Millennium Development Goals.

There is no time to waste. This generation of young people is much bigger in comparison with the numbers of older people and children who depend on their work. But this generation will age in their turn, and there are fewer young people coming up behind them. The opportunity will not come again. If investment in today’s young people fails, who will drive development and support aging populations in the future?

First things first – human rights

Schoolgirls in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Schoolgirls in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2003.
Photo: William A. Ryan/UNFPA

Experience shows that respect for human rights helps this process, in which (among other things) economic growth is faster, families are smaller and population growth slows down. It is easier to find the balance between the proportion of men to women, urban to rural, and productive to dependent people in the population.

Respect for human rights aids progress towards democracy, and contributes to finding sustainable approaches to development.1 

Respect for human rights calls for a legal framework which guarantees human rights, and the means to enforce the guarantees. Women are entitled to the same human rights as men, including the right to health and education, and protection from violence. But because societies have historically discriminated against women, they must pay special attention to women’s human rights.

Education: With education – even basic literacy – comes confidence; confidence to make your own decisions, to challenge the right of others to make decisions on your behalf.

Women should be able to wait until they are over 18 before they marry. Married or not, they should be free from coercion and violence in their lives.

Women who can make their own decisions about pregnancy and childbirth find that they have room for all sorts of other choices in their lives.

Women have the right to health care, including reproductive health care – family planning, care in pregnancy and childbirth, protection from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS, and from preventable harms like female genital mutilation/cutting, obstetric fistula and gender-based violence.

1 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Alfred E Knopf, New York 1999