Commission on Population and Development

Statement By Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the Commission on Population and Development New York, 7 April 2008

I have the honour to address the Commission on Population and
Development for the first time as Under-Secretary-General for Economic
and Social Affairs.

The world has made major advances in reducing both mortality
and fertility – and, in the process, improving the lives and
prospects for millions of families worldwide. The transformational
changes in population trends that began last century, and are still
playing out, owe much to the intellectual leadership that this
Commission has exercised, and to its success in garnering the political
commitment necessary to influence population trends.

This week, the Commission will consider an important element
of population dynamics: the spatial distribution of population and its
interrelations to development. The Commission will focus particularly
on the increasing urbanization.

By the end of this year, for the first time in history, half
of all people will live in urban areas. More strikingly, population
growth, in future, will be absorbed, almost entirely, by urban areas in
developing countries.

In slightly more than a decade, the world’s rural
population will peak at about 3.5 billion people and, then, start a
slow decline. From now to 2050, the urban population of developed
countries will change little, remaining at about one billion. Yet, the
world’s urban population will continue rising, from 3.3
billion today, to well over 6 billion in 2050.

Three factors drive the growth of the urban population. The
first is that the number of births exceeds the number of deaths.
Demographers call this “natural increase”. The
second is the migration of people from rural to urban areas.

The third is a factor often overlooked: the transformation of
rural settlements into urban towns. And these “newly
born” cities are often “medium sized”.
For instance, between the early 1980s and the 1990s, at least 400
localities that were newly classified as cities – each with
100,000 inhabitants or more – were added to the urban
population of Asia alone, thus producing almost instantaneous spurts of
growth in the urban population.

Understanding the components of urban population growth is
important because the spatial distribution of their populations is a
concern for the vast majority of Governments.

The most common policy response has been to try to reduce
rural to urban migration. Yet, in most developing countries, such
migration is not the major contributor to urban growth. And it is very
difficult to succeed in keeping people in the countryside when the pull
of the city is strong, offering greater opportunities and a higher
quality of life. This suggests that developing countries wishing to
slow down urban population growth should focus, instead, on ways of
reducing natural increase in their urban areas.

Mounting evidence indicates that there are still major
disparities in access to services, not only between rural and urban
dwellers, but also between poor urban dwellers and the rest.
Furthermore, the advantage of urban areas in terms of access to
reproductive health and family planning is smaller than one would
expect. Much can be done to improve access by both poor urban dwellers
and rural residents to those services.

In this context, let me also underscore the importance of
programmes that focus specifically on improving the health status of
poor children, whether in rural or urban areas. Such programmes would
not only save lives and improve children’s well-being; they
would also allow parents to have fewer children, while still reaching
the family size they desire.

As more effort and resources are concentrated in supporting
countries’ efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals
by 2015, it is important to understand how population distribution
conditions the lives of people – and interacts with other
demographic processes – in order to plan and target
interventions effectively.

Large cities, despite their problems, produce better health
outcomes than smaller cities. And cities, in turn, tend to provide
better livelihoods to the average inhabitant than rural areas. Enabling
local authorities to tailor interventions to their particular settings
is an important consideration in responding to the challenges posed by
uneven population distribution and access to services and resources.

This Commission plays a crucial role in ensuring that the root
causes of population trends are understood and reflected properly in
international discourse. The rigour with which the Commission lays out
the facts, and assesses their consequences for policy action, is one of
its fundamental assets. I hope that the valuable work of the Commission
may contribute to the newly mandated activities of the Economic and
Social Council and, in particular, to the Annual Ministerial Review of
progress towards the MDGs and other internationally agreed development
goals. The focus of the Review, this year, is on sustainable
development commitments; next year, it will be global health.

To conclude, let me recall the following guidance provided by
the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population
and Development: “Effective population distribution policies
are those that, while respecting the right of individuals to live and
work in the community of their choice, take into account the effects of
development strategies on population distribution”.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Delegates, I hope this principle
will prove useful in guiding your deliberations, and I wish you a most
productive and successful session.