A smaller world

R. A. Hettinga rah@shipwright.com
Wed, 13 Mar 2002 13:18:21 -0500

Gee. Abolish market controls, protect private property and investment, and,
hey, presto, dramatically increased lifespan -- and lower worldwide
fertility. Imagine *that*. Whooda *thunkit*?




A smaller world
Mar 13th 2002
>From The Economist Global Agenda
Demographers are rethinking their forecasts of population growth because of
an unexpected fall in the fertility rates of many developing countries. As
experts discuss changing trends at a United Nations conference in New York,
some experts are beginning to speculate about the eventual decline of the
global population

Fewer mouths to feed eventually

PREDICTING the future is always difficult-and predicting population trends
is particularly fraught. Following Thomas Malthus's reflections on
population in 1798, the world had nightmarish visions of population
explosions and starving crowds. Although his apocalyptic theories have long
been disproven, too-rapid population growth has nevertheless crippled the
economic prospects of many developing countries and left hundreds of
millions mired in poverty. The pace of growth has been truly startling.
World population has soared from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 6 billion
today-making it something of a miracle that Malthus's predictions of mass
starvation have not come true. Even more rapid advances in technology have
helped stave off Armageddon. But growth is continuing at an alarming rate.
The United Nations population division projects that world population will
balloon to 9.3 billion within the next 50 years.

But have the experts got it wrong again? At a UN meeting in New York this
week, the organisation's own population experts are conferring with other
leading demographers to decide whether the current projections need to be
revised downwards. There is no doubt that world population will
substantially increase over the next few decades, but there are now signs
that it may do so at a slower rate than predicted. And one participant at
the conference, believes that the world's population might even start to
decline in about a hundred years. "We may some day pass our present level
on the way down again," says John Caldwell, a professor at the Australian
National University.

The key to population forecasts, and to the revisions now being
contemplated, is fertility rates. Until recently, population gurus thought
that the world's average fertility rate, which has been declining, would
eventually stabilise at 2.1 children per woman. This is roughly the
replacement rate, and would mean that world population would also plateau
once the rate was achieved. But in the past decade, it has become
increasingly clear that countries whose reproductive zeal had fallen below
the 2.1 magic number were not isolated cases. As far back as 1997, the UN
population division decided it would be wise to assume that most
industrialised countries would land on a fertility plateau of 1.85 children
per woman before 2050 and revised their population projections accordingly.

Now population experts are wondering whether they should do the same for
many countries in the developing world, where the bulk of population growth
occurs. In countries whose fertility rate currently stands somewhere
between 2.1 and 5, the number of children per woman has been declining more
rapidly than anticipated. Tunisian women, for example, have gone from
bearing an average of over 7 children in the early 1960s to only 2.3 in the
late 1990s. In Brazil, the rate has slumped from 6.15 to 2.27 in the past
45 years. For most countries, the decline in fertility rates has been
accelerating over the past 20 years, and population experts now think that
they will approach the equilibrium rate much sooner than expected. Indeed,
demographers are starting to doubt whether the fertility rate for these
countries will stabilise at 2.1 or carry on falling. So this week's UN
conference is considering whether to extend the 1.85 rate used for
industrial world projections to this much larger group of developing

What may initially seem like hair-splitting could, of course, have a
significant impact. The 74 countries whose rates the experts are revising
made up 43% of the world's population in 2000. The group includes heavily
populated countries such as India, Indonesia and Brazil where even small
changes in the fertility rate translate into sizeable population changes in
a relatively short time. According to the UN population division, the
change being contemplated this week would mean that in 50 years, there
would be 85m fewer Indians than currently projected: and close to 690m
fewer by 2150.

A big factor in these unexpected declines in fertility rates is the
realisation that fertility may not be as closely related to socio-economic
factors as was previously thought. Urbanisation, as well as better
education and a higher social status for women may not be preconditions for
declining fertility. Larry Heligman, assistant director for the UN
population division, points to Ghana, whose fertility rate has declined
from 7 in the 1970s to 4.2 today, in spite of limited progress on other
fronts. Uneducated women in rural areas, provided they have access to
family planning, increasingly choose to have fewer children.

The debate over the relative importance of family planning and
socio-economic factors is still raging, though. Whatever their background,
if women have access to contraception they can limit unwanted pregnancies.
But educated, urban women still tend to want fewer children than their
rural and less-educated sisters. Family-planning policy is essential in
lowering fertility rates, but without appropriate efforts to improve health
services and the status of women, the decline is likely to be limited. If
mothers expect that some of their children are likely to die before the age
of five, most will keep on having them. In poor countries, extra children
is the only assurance most parents have that they will not starve in old
age. So unless the world's poorest countries become richer, declines in
fertility may stop.

What are the implications of slower population growth? Fewer mouths to feed
are good news for poor countries, which are struggling to feed the number
of people they already have. Although the picture is not as bleak as in the
late 1960s-when 45% of children under five suffered from malnutrition-close
to one child in three, or 167m children, were still malnourished in the
late 1990s. In sub-Saharan Africa, both the proportion and the absolute
number of malnourished children are still on the rise. According to Mark
Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a think-tank
based in Washington, DC, there will still be over 130m malnourished
children in 2020, based on current UN population projections. Although bad
agricultural and trade policies, as well as problems of food distribution,
have a lot to do with world hunger, rapidly growing populations only make
the problem worse. For example, if the UN's lowest forecast of population
growth turns out to be right, rather than the medium-range figure which it
still believes is most likely, that would mean 30m fewer malnourished
children in 20 years, says Mr Roesgrant.

Does slower population growth also mean less poverty? Not automatically.
According to Tom Merrick, population consultant at the World Bank,
declining fertility creates a window of opportunity, during which countries
have a chance to improve physical, as well as health and education
infrastructure, and to create better job prospects. In Taiwan and South
Korea, lower fertility rates translated into a better-educated workforce
having access to better employment and enjoying rising living standards.
But depending on the speed of the fertility transition, the window could be
as short as two decades. If countries miss the boat, however, and their
economies do not grow quickly enough, or their workforce does not become
better educated, their millions of working-age inhabitants will go from
caring for children to supporting a growing number of older people, with no
more resources to do so. This hardly provides a recipe for economic
success. According to Mr Merrick, countries such as India and Bangladesh,
where fertility rates have been declining steadily, may nonetheless be
facing this gloomy prospect.

In other words, declining fertility rates may be a necessary condition for
economic improvement: but not a sufficient one. Sensible economic policies,
responsible government and access to world markets are, in the short and
medium term, probably just as important. Making the most of the
opportunities offered by falling fertility is a challenge for rich and poor
countries alike.

Copyright  2002 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah@ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'