1 April 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Population issues had a direct effect on economic growth and deserved to be discussed alongside other development issues, said Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, speaking at a Headquarters press conference midway through a week-long meeting of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development.

Ms. Zlotnik, one of three experts addressing journalists this afternoon, said the Commission -- which has met every year since 1994 -- had gathered at Headquarters to discuss the impact of population programmes on countries’ efforts to reach the international development goals, particularly the core goals of poverty and hunger reduction.  In a draft resolution being prepared by the Commission, members were discussing whether to include language concerning the right to plan the number and spacing of children, in the context of the impact of family planning on economic growth.

“Reduction in fertility has important implications in population dynamics that economists have been analysing for a while now, and which they find have very important implications for economic and social development,” she said.

According to Ms. Zlotnik, an increasing number of Governments were voicing their recognition of the importance of sexual and reproductive rights.  Many Governments were affirming a woman’s right to decide how many children to have, and supporting the idea of giving women the means to achieve their reproductive goals.

At the press conference, journalists also heard from David Canning, a professor at the Department of Population and International Health, Harvard School of Public Health, whose work focused on the effects of changing population dynamics on socio-economic development.  A third panellist was Jean-Pierre Guengant, Resident Representative from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développment, Burkina Faso, who is an expert on family planning programmes in countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Mr. Canning said there were many reasons for a slowdown in population growth, and that when analysed separately, increased fertility, low mortality and an influx of migrants -- the three sources of population growth -- had different effects on the economy and on poverty levels.

A reduction in fertility rate was beneficial, he said, because that would provide an economy with more working-age people compared to other age groups.  A large body of workers meant a higher per capita economic output for those countries.  A lower fertility rate also increased female labour supply in urban areas, which also served to reduce poverty.  In addition, there were fewer children to support.

He said two controlled experiments in Ghana and Bangladesh had provided convincing evidence that lower fertility caused a reduction in poverty.  Regions that received intensified family planning and access to reproductive health services had lower fertility rates, which in turn had caused a spike in female labour market participation and higher income for women.  Smaller family size also allowed individuals to invest more in their children’s health and education.

“Once this process gets going, there’s a positive feedback from smaller family size to economic growth, and economic growth leading back into desired smaller families,” he said, adding that perhaps one third of the economic growth over the last 40 years in East Asia had been due to “demographic dividends” similar to those seen in the experiment.

Among the world’s least developed countries, however, a ballooning population meant they would not achieve the Millennium Development Goals before the 2015 deadline, said the third expert, Mr. Guengant.  With four times the number of children, “immunization is not complete, schooling at primary level is not complete and schooling at the secondary level is desperately low”.  And despite famine, conflict and disease, Africa’s population growth continued to double every 20 years.

In sub-Saharan African countries, contraception use averaged about 20 to 25 per cent, he said, compared to a contraceptive prevalence of 70 per cent in Latin American and Asian countries with more stable populations.  Contraceptive use was presently so slow to gain popularity in Africa that “it would take 120 years to achieve the reproductive rights of African women”.  Ms. Zlotnik later said, in response to a question, that the Pope’s visit to Angola did not figure in the discussions taking place within the Commission on Population and Development.

One correspondent noted that of the 15 countries with the largest fertility change, 3 were the oil-rich countries of United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.  Ms. Zlotnik said the national decline in fertility was exaggerated in part by the low fertility of migrant women, many of whom could not bring their partners when they moved to those countries.  Higher-skilled female workers had more leeway and often migrated with their families, but many of them were already from countries with a lower fertility rate.

However, she acknowledged that better education -- including attempts to achieve a better gender balance in education -- and improvements in health care had indeed contributed to lower fertility among nationals.  Such data proved that even Muslim cultures could produce “advances of big quantity” if their Governments cooperated.  Eight more nations from the top 15 included other Muslim countries, some of which had “advanced” population policies, she added.

“We were hearing […] the very advanced policies that these countries were adopting in terms of giving access to contraceptive methods of many kinds to their women,” she said.  “They’re very direct in telling you, these are problems we have, these are the groups we’re not reaching and this is what we’re doing.”

With a good information and education programme, it was possible to counteract a strong religious influence, added Mr. Guengant, recalling that few people in the 1960s believed the family planning movement in Latin America had enough strength to counteract the influence of the Church.

Describing his experience in Niger, which had a high number of children per women and a very low rate of contraceptive use, he said people were saying it was “the other Muslims”, the “bad Muslims”, who were practicing family planning.

But he said he believed it was not a question of religion but of effective family planning programmes, citing Indonesia -- a large Muslim country -- as a success.  Women in Indonesia had fewer than two children, and up to 70 to 75 per cent of the population were using contraceptives.

Mr. Canning said women became more motivated to have fewer children when they saw more of their children surviving past infancy, as in India, where the fertility rate currently stood below three children.  “I think the same will happen in Africa, but it’s going to take quite a while and is dependent on the provision of family planning services.”

Asked whether universal access to reproductive health would be formally included in the Millennium Development Goals, Ms. Zlotnik said it was already a targeted outcome under the broader goal of improving maternal health.  But the Commission was drafting a resolution that, if the wording was approved, would add a lot of weight to the goal of universal access.

“Behind it is exactly the emphasis that Cairo gave to the idea that it was important to make real the rights of individuals to decide freely the number and spacing of their children,” she said, adding that the proposed resolution would stress the importance of giving both men and women access to methods through which to exercise those rights.

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For information media • not an official record