UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
with support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)

Statement on Population Growth and Economic Development


For further information please contact the United Nations Population Fund 

at 220 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017 USA or via email: 



FROM:  Population Growth and Economic Development: Report on the 

Consultative Meeting of Economists Convened by the United Nations 

Population Fund, 28-29 September 1992, New York.  New York:UNFPA, 1993.


                      ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

                  Adopted by Consultative Meeting

                    Participants by Consensus

I.   Policy and Research Challenges in the 1990s

     During the 1980s, a number of economists (many occupying key

positions as policy advisers) have asserted that population is either

a neutral factor vis--vis economic growth and development, or that

its importance is being overplayed by aid donors and family planning


     At the same time, leaders in a growing number of developing

countries have become even more convinced of the need to slow rapid

population growth.  In part, this is a result of more open,

responsive governance in many countries. Leaders see immediate

problems associated with high population growth.  They are convinced

that organized interventions can do something to slow population

growth and that such a slow-down brings benefits to individuals and

society; also that the community wants and is responsive to family

planning programmes.

     The important question thus arises: How to bridge this gap,

actual or perceived, between current research findings and the policy

community's need for guidance for action in the population field.

In our view, the answer is to broaden the population debate, to get

beyond the narrow focus on population and growth of income per capita

that one finds in heuristic models and economists' rejection of them,

and to focus on problems associated with population pressures that

are both specific and tractable.

     There is a need to increase recognition among researcher-

advisers that policy makers must make decisions now  in the face of

probable (though still, in some instances, unconfirmed) consequences

of further delays in checking demographic momentum.  Demographers

make a compelling case that the time for action is now, even if it

is unlikely that fully satisfying knowledge about adverse

consequences is possible in the near term.  How can we apply the

precautionary principle?  How can we use an imperfect knowledge base

to inform decisions that have to be made under uncertainty?

     To start with, it is important to understand the history of the

population debate.

II.  Origins of Consensus and Commitment to Action on Population

     A.    The Nature of the Consensus Formed in the 1960s

     The consensus of the 1960s was based on recognition of the

health and welfare benefits of family planning for individuals; and

of the human rights aspect as reflected in access to safe, effective

contraceptive methods.

     It drew on growing concern about the acceleration of population

growth in developing countries (that resulted from rapid decline in

mortality while fertility remained high), occurring at a time when

these countries were also beginning efforts to raise living

standards; in particular, there was concern that rapid population

growth would inhibit the development required to bring down birth


     There were limitations in the knowledge base of that period. It

was felt, for example, that the European experience of "demographic

transition" would be too onerous if repeated in developing countries.

Moreover, discussion of macroeconomic consequences relied on

heuristic models, using 1950s-vintage economic-growth models, to show

that the young age distribution associated with high fertility would

lower investments needed to boost production for the increasing

number of consumers.

     Despite lack of definitive research evidence to support

interventions to slow population growth rates, there was policy-level

consensus of a strong presumptive case for intervention justified by

indisputable benefits to individuals and probable benefits to


     B.    Mobilization of Political and Financial Support for

           Population Interventions in the 1970s

     Most research during the 1970s was focused on understanding

reproductive behaviour and how interventions might accelerate

fertility decline.  Few questioned the premise that fertility decline

was necess-ary; most agreed that research was needed to help find out

how to do this more effectively.

     There was surprisingly little research on consequences of rapid

population growth, except replication of heuristic exercises aimed

at expanding political support.  Some theoretical work took place,

such as refinements of growth models, but little empirical work was

undertaken to expand the knowledge base about population/development

links or macroeconomic consequences.

III. Revisionist View of Macroeconomic Consequences in 1980s

     During the early 1980s, there was renewed interest by research

community in macroeconomic effects of population growth, in part a

response to the strong counter-attacks by Professor Julian Simon.

This struck a chord of sympathy from mainstream economists who had

been sceptical all along about the arguments used to justify the

earlier consensus.  Also, many economists rejected the rigid

structural-growth models of 1950s, being more interested in market

responses and "getting the prices right".  The 1986 report of the

U.S. National Academy of Sciences played a catalytic role in

legitimizing this "revisionist" view.  Even though the report

acknowledged that rapid population growth could cause problems for

developing countries, its very cautious review of the evidence on

adverse economic effect of rapid population growth was generally seen

as a rejection of the earlier consensus.

     Concurrently, research findings continued to be positive about

the benefits for health, education, welfare and women's status to be

gained by improving access to safe, effective family planning.  The

few economists who focused on population issues mainly took a

laissez-faire or "agnostic" position on macro issues but supported

interventions on individual welfare grounds.  Some granted that rapid

population growth could aggravate development problems, but noted

that population fell fairly low on the list of causes of those

problems.  Other causes (poor management, distorted incentives, etc.)

need to be attacked directly.  These economists were also open to

interventions to correct market failure due to poor information,

distorted prices and externalities.  Family planning intervention to

enhance societal equity was also seen by them as justified.

IV.  Status of Current Knowledge Base and Implications for Population


     Nothing in economic-demographic research contradicts the

proposition that in low-income countries with considerable backlogs

in human development, living standards and infrastructure, population

growth in excess of 2 per cent per year is among the structural

factors inhibiting the achievement of a wide range of development


     In many countries and circumstances, the longer-run implications

of rapid population growth, particularly pressure on renewable

resources, are severe.  Environmental pressures vary in the extent

to which they are driven by population growth as opposed to other

factors such as technology, income growth, policies, etc.  But the

food-soil-water relationship is strongly related to population and

individual countries which face these problems already are likely to

be acutely affected in the future.  In such circumstances, a

difference of a decade in the onset of the transition to lower

population growth can make a considerable, even essential difference.

     Rapid growth in labour-force entrants is a source of stress in

capital-poor economies; in countries where rapid growth of the

school-age population has also contributed to the erosion of

investments in human resources, the potential gains that might have

accrued from having a rapidly growing stock of younger workers are

offset by lower productivity of workers and reduced competitiveness

in a global economy where gains from trade depend primarily on

productivity.  When low productivity is coupled with low earnings,

efforts to alleviate poverty are undercut.  It is easy to recommend

more investment in social sectors as a remedy to poverty, but

difficult to do that if productivity is so low that neither workers

nor Governments are likely to accumulate the surpluses required to

make such investments.

     New evidence from 1980s data shows a negative correlation of

high rates of population growth and the growth of per capita income.

We urge, however, that findings be interpreted cautiously, as

indicative of problems associated with rapid population growth in

countries that have not done well.  Countries that have slowed

population growth rates and are now doing comparatively better should

also be examined.  Attention should be focused on specific issues:

falling behind in human resource investments; poor governance in face

of population pressures; unsustainable efforts to increase food

production; strains on water resources; other issues that are of

immediate concern to policy makers  as well as long-run issues

associated with lower versus higher population stabilization.

     We also note that recognition of the adverse effects of rapid

population growth does not mean that acceleration of the transition

to lower growth will by itself solve all developmental problems; at

best it may buy time to deal with those problems or keep them from

getting even worse.  Most of the immediate benefits to slowing

population growth through increasing access to family planning accrue

to individuals through the welfare and equity benefits of being able

to time and space births more effectively and with less risk to

health.  Subsidized family planning services may also help to bring

the individual costs of an added birth better into line with societal

costs thus reducing externalities (costs of children borne by society

at large, but not by individual families). When interventions are

motivated by both individual and societal objectives, respect for the

reproductive rights and health of individuals should be an added

focus of attention.

V.   Recommendations

     The research community should continue to broaden and deepen the

knowledge base for population policy.  Research efforts should focus

on problems in countries where population pressures appear serious

and on the specific aspects of the problem that particularly affect

those countries.  An examination of economic benefits in countries

that have successfully slowed population growth should also be given

priority.  Further, research should probe specific under-served

groups in countries where market failures may be depriving such

groups from obtaining benefits from family planning and reproductive

health services.  The research community should also strive to make

progress in estimating costs and resource

requirements for population interventions.

     Analysis of the impact of population on a broad range of

development issues has not received the serious attention it should

have.  Implications for poverty alleviation  particularly in rural

areas  and infrastructure investment, as well as other issues, stand

out in this regard.  An enormous increase in the population of

developing countries over the next three to four decades is

inevitable.  Understanding the impacts of this increase is not just

a matter of defending or rebutting the assertions that have dominated

the population debate during the 1980s: it is a matter of great

policy relevance.

     Those actions that make sense on micro-level grounds, including

benefits for human rights, equity and women's status, (whether or not

a strong macroeconomic rationale can be established) should be taken

immediately.  This list certainly includes striving to meet the

existing and growing unmet need for quality family planning and

reproductive health services and to expand educational and other

opportunities for women.  Also, we recognize that government can play

an important role in legitimizing family planning as well as

providing information and services.

     Ways should be explored for the research community to do a

better job at informing the policy process about rationales for

intervention and help policy makers deal with complexities of

population-development links.  Agnosticism may be safe for

researchers, but it is not helpful at the policy level.  Do

researchers really intend to deny the validity of interventions? Do

they want to limit themselves to debunking naive, alarmist approaches

to consequences?  A more constructive approach would be to help

decision makers to weigh risks, benefits and costs of

actions/inaction and to make enlightened decisions on the basis of

knowledge that we now possess, however imperfect it is.

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