Mr. Chairman, distinguished Delegates
It is my pleasure to address once again the Commission on Population and Development. In 2004, when I had the honour to address you for the first time, the Commission was about to conduct the ten-year review of progress made in implementing the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The review touched upon the full spectrum of population issues and their interrelations with development. The breadth and scope of the issues covered by the Programme of Action and hence by this Commission are vivid proof that population is central to all development initiatives. Indeed, as often stressed by my dear colleague, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, people are at the centre of development and the development challenges of today cannot be understood without having a sense of the long-term population trends that are shaping societies today and in the future.
This Commission has made major contributions to the United Nations Development Agenda and has helped to ensure that people, whether young, middle-aged, or older, whether they are girls or boys, women or men, remain the focus of development.
In 2005, while concentrating on the contribution that the ICPD Programme of Action could make toward the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, the Commission passed a key resolution underscoring the importance of integrating universal access to reproductive health into strategies to attain those goals. In no small part because of the groundwork laid by this Commission, that crucial point was reflected in the outcome document of the 2005 World Summit. And it will likely have a major impact in improving the lives of women, couples, and their children all over the world.
Last year, as the UN prepared to consider the interrelations of international migration with development at a High-level Dialogue conducted by the General Assembly, the Commission undertook a thorough and comprehensive consideration of international migration issues. As you know, its work produced a forward looking resolution on the topic. The resolution addressed a broad range of issues and set forth a solid set of initiatives in advance of the Dialogue. As a result, the key messages contained in the resolution were echoed by many of those participating in the Dialogue. As the General Assembly continues to consider how best to follow-up the High-level Dialogue, the work of this Commission will certainly remain relevant in ensuring that the best evidence is brought to bear in developing a comprehensive and holistic approach to international migration and development.
This year the Commission is about to consider yet another crucial theme for development: the implications of the changing age distributions of populations. Indeed, the importance of this issue, which will be addressed by the Commission this year, led me to devote this year’s World Economic and Social Survey to this topic.
Population specialists have long been familiar with the effects of the demographic transition on population age structures. Those working for the UN have been emphasizing for many years that humanity’s great successes in reducing mortality risks among the young, in increasing longevity, prolonging healthy life, and, especially, in achieving major reductions in the number of children that women bear, are at the root of major ongoing changes in the age distribution, changes that have substantial implications for development.
When fertility falls from high to low levels, the population enters a period over which the number of persons in the prime working ages increases relative to that of children and older persons. During that period, often called the “window of opportunity”, the number of potential workers rises and, provided that decent jobs are available for more of them, the age distribution that characterizes this stage of the demographic transition can have beneficial effects on development. It is no coincidence that today; lower per capita incomes tend to characterize those countries where dependency levels remain high because the number of children per woman is still large.
Yet, the benefits associated with the demographic “window of opportunity” are not automatic. The right policies are necessary to improve human and physical capital, increase employment, and promote savings. One of the key strategies to reap the potential benefits is to increase the educational attainment of children and young people. The good news in this regard is that in both developed and developing countries, the levels of educational attainment of younger generations have been improving. But in many developing countries, the advances made have been slow and are not sufficient to ensure that enough trained workers are available to propel economic development. Furthermore, levels of unemployment remain high among the young, especially in poorer countries. In contrast, youth unemployment tends to be lower in countries where early reductions in fertility have contributed to slowing down the growth of the population under age 25.
To ensure that the window of opportunity gives rise to economic growth that may persist even after the window closes, it is essential to increase not only production but also savings and the accumulation of assets. Economists argue that, because people in ageing populations expect to live longer than their forebears, they are likely to save more and accumulate more over their lifetimes than earlier generations. Models that take into account the effect that increasing longevity may have on the savings of different cohorts relative to their lifetime earnings suggest that, as a population ages, a long-term increase of capital per worker may materialize, provided that the major source of wealth to defray consumption in old age is the accumulation of savings and assets at younger ages. Because people do not always behave as economists expect them to, if Governments wish to achieve the results that the models predict, it is advisable for them to foster institutions that promote and facilitate savings for retirement and the accumulation of other assets. In particular, in designing or reforming pension systems, the establishment of a “funded pillar” that promotes the accumulation of wealth needs to be seriously considered.
Today, the populations of developed countries are already older than any population has ever been over the course of human history. They are therefore blazing the trail that other populations may follow. In particular, as their people live longer and generally healthier lives, Governments need to consider lengthening also their productive lives and, as many countries are doing, increasing the retirement age. In addition, as families become smaller and become less likely to provide the care that elderly persons may need, new practices, services, and social arrangements need to be devised to ensure that the growing demand for personal care among the elderly is met. Furthermore, to prevent poverty from increasing among the elderly, transfer programmes focusing on the older segments of the population, particularly on older women living on their own, will be increasingly necessary.
As the Commission embarks on the consideration of these issues and many others that are already comprehensively reflected in both the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing and the ICPD Programme of Action, it is important to underscore again that ageing populations are the result of critical changes in population trends that are themselves necessary to ensure the sustainability of human life in this planet. If we all are to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives, we cannot and need not multiply as humanity had to when lives were short and difficult. Reductions in the size of future generations is a major achievement that we can convert into even greater gains by ensuring that we develop the right institutional arrangements and policy initiatives to make the most of the opportunities that population ageing brings.
This is the last time I will have the opportunity to address you in my current capacity as Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. I want thus to thank the Commission for its support to our activities. I also want to give special thanks to my dear colleague, Thoraya Obaid, from whom I have learned so much throughout my tenure and with whose ideas it has always been so easy to agree. The Population Division is one of the jewels of DESA; I have also learned much from their very professional work. And, of course, I have a special gratitude to its current director, Hania Zlotnik, who has been a constant source of support.
In closing, I wish you success in your deliberations and reiterate the full support of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and its Population Division to your important work.