Assessing progress for populations worldwide

When the Commission on Population and Development gathers on 7-11 April, it will be only a few months away from the 20-year anniversary of the largest intergovernmental conference on population and development ever held – the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. Ahead of this event, John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division, spoke with DESA News about some of the demographic trends during the past 20 years and some of the issues currently at stake.

“One of the most important areas of progress goes to the heart of what the Cairo conference was all about,” said Mr. Wilmoth, highlighting how this conference represented a shift in thinking. “Across the board, the emphasis went toward thinking about individuals and their rights and needs, and addressing those issues first and foremost,” he explained. He also pointed to positive changes that can be seen over the past 20 years including a substantial reduction of fertility around the world, increases in life expectancy as well as greater recognition of the contribution of international migration to development.

“The emphasis went toward thinking about individuals and their rights and needs, and addressing those issues first and foremost”

The conference in Cairo helped galvanize action that brought major improvements in the well-being of people around the world. When representatives and experts from a large number of UN Member States and NGOs gather in New York for the 47th session of the Commission on Population and Development, they will assess the status of implementation of the Programme of Action, adopted by 179 governments in 1994.

“There is still an unfinished agenda of the Cairo conference,” Mr. Wilmoth said, pointing to the need to continue to improve life expectancy, reduce fertility, enhance access to education, and achieve gender equality. “It means continuing to work on fulfilling the rights and needs of individuals across the life course,” Mr. Wilmoth added.

The Commission will also be an important preparatory event for the special session of the General Assembly, which will take place on 22 September 2014 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Cairo conference.

Population growth and diversity

In 2011, the world’s population surpassed 7 billion and it is expected to reach 8.1 billion in 2025 and 9.6 billion in 2050. Between 2010 and 2014, the world’s population grew at a rate of 1.2 per cent per annum, below the 1.5 per cent per annum around the time of the ICPD in 1994.

Considerable diversity exists in the expected future course of population change, driven mainly by differences in fertility levels. At one end of the spectrum are countries characterized by high fertility and rapid population growth, and at the other end are countries where fertility has fallen below the replacement level, resulting in rapid population ageing and, in some cases, population decline.

For example, the combined population of the 49 least developed countries is projected to double by 2050, whereas in more than 40 other countries – many of them in Eastern Europe, East, South-East and Western Asia, other parts of Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean – the size of the population is expected to decline in the coming decades.

Need to close gaps

Policies designed to increase the availability of safe and effective contraceptives and accessibility to family planning programmes and reproductive health care have been instrumental in reducing fertility. In 2013, more than 90 per cent of governments provided either direct or indirect support for family planning programmes. Furthermore, life expectancy worldwide has increased since ICPD, rising from 65 years in the period 1990-1995 to 70 years in the period 2010-2015.

Despite these advances, most countries will not achieve the ICPD Programme of Action target for life expectancy of 75 years (70 years for the countries with the highest mortality levels) by the target date of 2015. Worldwide, women live 4.5 years longer than men, a gap that has remained virtually unchanged since 1994. Similarly, the world as a whole will miss the Conference target of a 75 per cent reduction in maternal mortality.

Ageing, international migration and urbanization

In 2013, the number of international migrants worldwide reached 232 million, up from 154 million in 1990. There are more people living outside their country of birth than ever before, and it is expected that the numbers will increase further.

“[Migration] has become increasingly important as [a] driver of development,” said Mr. Wilmoth. Indeed, the international community is increasingly recognizing the contribution of migration to global development, as exemplified by last year’s landmark General Assembly political declaration on the issue.

An important consequence of lower fertility and higher life expectancy is population ageing. The number and proportion of older people are expected to continue rising. Globally, the share of people aged 60 years or older increased from 9 per cent in 1994 to 12 per cent in 2014, and is expected to reach 21 per cent by 2050.

“Since most of the future growth of the world’s population […] will be absorbed by urban areas, it is important to address urban planning issues and promote sustainable patterns of urban growth”

Mr. Wilmoth observed that “this creates challenges in terms of meeting the needs of the older population and also in managing the relationship between the generations as the working-age population inevitably has to provide a certain amount of financial and other forms of support for the older population,” he said.

“Another important area is urbanization,” Mr. Wilmoth added. “Since most of the future growth of the world’s population […] will be absorbed by urban areas, it is important to address urban planning issues and promote sustainable patterns of urban growth,” he said.

Shaping the post-2015 sustainable development agenda

People are at the heart of sustainable development. As emphasized in one of the Commission’s main reports (E/CN.9/2014/3), few factors will shape the global development agenda as fundamentally as the size, structure and spatial distribution of the world’s population. Demographic change will continue to affect and be shaped by social, economic, environmental and political changes. Increased knowledge of how these factors interact can help shape the post-2015 development agenda and contribute to policies that achieve both new and existing development goals.

Although the post-2015 development agenda has yet to be finalized, Mr. Wilmoth expected that the Population Division would have a major role in monitoring future sustainable goals. “We look forward to being a part of that,” Mr. Wilmoth concluded.

For more information:

UN DESA’s Population Division

47th Session of the Commission on Population and Development

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