NEW YORK, February 1 (C-FAM) A major disagreement among demographic experts threatens to upend efforts to include population control and family planning programs in the United Nations new development agenda. Experts who view population growth as an obstacle to development are criticizing the “laissez-faire attitude” of developing countries toward population growth and high fertility. Yet other experts disagree, saying that population control and family planning are not essential to development strategies.
The debate is occurring as UN officials are working closely with nations to map out a development plan to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which expire in 2015.
At a briefing last week for UN member states, John Wilmoth, the new head of a UN population office, acknowledged that population control had become a “dirty word” and a paradigm shift was necessary to secure the same objective. Wilmoth asked delegates if there are “policies that create incentives that would nudge people in the right direction without violating fundamental freedoms?” He suggested the new focus should be on “enabling individuals” and “education and access to family planning services” as opposed to “targets.” Countries could, for example, “encourage adults to have fewer children because they are expensive to raise.”
A recent online exchange between demographic experts John Bongaarts and David Lam highlights diverging theories on the impact of high fertility and rapid population growth on development.
Bongaarts, who is with the Population Council, maintains that countries should invest in family planning in order to reduce fertility and level the booming populations of the African continent. Current projections estimate that at the current growth rate the African continent may have upwards of 3 billion people by 2100, but that family planning programs may reduce that to just over 1 billion.
Lam, of the University of Michigan, challenged Bongaart’s assumptions. “If rapid population growth always caused higher poverty, then the last 50 years should have been one of the most impoverishing periods in human history. In fact, it was a period of rising living standards in most of the developing world.”
Lam also cited successes in Asia and South America, particularly in Thailand and Brazil. “[T]he demographic challenges we see in the poorest countries today are similar to those experienced by other developing countries in the last 50 years… it is by no means impossible to have rapid economic growth at the same time as rapid population growth.”
According to Lam, the push to eliminate “unmet need for family planning” is not an effective development strategy because it fails to address any actual problems. Only 10% of women in sub-Saharan Africa cite lack of access to family planning as the reason they do not use contraception.
The UN General Assembly formed a working group this month to shape the post-2015 development agenda. Replacing the MDGs with a viable scheme is a high priority for developing countries because the MDGs mobilized financial resources to tackle issues like hunger, health, poverty, and education.
At a UN conference on development in Rio de Janeiro last June, developing countries rejected “population dynamics” as another word for “population control,” perhaps more weary of the fiscal problems faced by developed nations with low fertility than the purported dangers of rapidly growing populations.