How Did We Arrive at 7 Billion – and Where Do We Go From Here? [Part Two]October 26, 2011 By Elizabeth Leahy MadsenThe world’s women will determine whether the global population in 2050 is as low as 8 billion or as high as 11 billion through their choices (or lack thereof) about the number and timing of their children. Women in developing regions of the world will have the greatest effect on these potential population trajectories. Even if fertility rates remain constant at current levels (which is unlikely), developing regions would grow from 5.7 billion in 2010 to 9.7 billion in 2050, but the total population of developed countries would remain essentially unchanged.The UN estimates that the seven billionth person alive today will be born on October 31. Demographer Elizabeth Leahy Madsen explains how we got to that number, its significance, and where our demographic path might take us from here. Read part one here.
The world’s women will determine whether the global population in 2050 is as low as 8 billion or as high as 11 billion through their choices (or lack thereof) about the number and timing of their children. Women in developing regions of the world will have the greatest effect on these potential population trajectories. Even if fertility rates remain constant at current levels (which is unlikely), developing regions would grow from 5.7 billion in 2010 to 9.7 billion in 2050, but the total population of developed countries would remain essentially unchanged.
The way that people decide the timing and number of their children is not easily distilled into a simple formula with a single solution. Still, some basic and important facts are known. In the developing world, where more than 80 percent of the world’s population lives, women in rural areas, those who have little or no education, and those who are poor, have larger families. As demographers have shown in modeling the determinants of fertility, women tend to seek contraception once they are confident that their children will survive to adulthood and when socioeconomic development increases the “costs” of having children, for example by motivating parents to send them to school rather than to work.
One of the most direct reasons for past declines in fertility rates was the rapid expansion of family planning and reproductive health programs, supported by country governments and international donors, that enabled women and men to more effectively choose the size of their families. But today, about 215 million women across the developing world would like to delay or avoid pregnancy but are using ineffective contraception or none at all. Funding programs to meet the family planning needs of these women, which would cost about $3.6 billion annually, would both empower them and help fertility rates continue to decline.
Beyond Access: Gender Inequality Inhibits Contraceptive Use
While increasing support for family planning programs tops the list of demographers’ recommended policies, ensuring that contraceptives are available and accessible will not alone achieve the fertility declines projected in most of the UN’s range of possibilities. Many women who are having or planning to have large families know about family planning and where to find it, but are choosing not to use contraception for cultural reasons that are often deeply engrained.
sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest global fertility rate, only 16 percent of married/partnered women of reproductive age are using effective contraception. In comparison, between 62 and 75 percent of their peers in Ireland, the United States, and Uruguay – countries whose fertility rates are almost exactly at replacement level – are using it.
Logically, sub-Saharan Africa needs similar levels of contraceptive use to bring its average fertility rate towards replacement level as the UN projects, so the region’s average prevalence rate for modern contraception would need to rise by at least 10 percentage points in each of the next four decades. However, contraceptive use in the region has grown by only 0.5 percentage points or less over the past 30 years.
What is inhibiting the use of contraception? Demographic and health surveys find in Nigeria, for example, that 10 percent of married women are using an effective contraceptive method, while twice as many have an unmet need for family planning. This low use of family planning demonstrates high potential for change in the country’s demographic future, which, as the most populous in Africa, will greatly influence global and regional trends. Yet among women who do not intend to use contraception, 39 percent report that they or their family members are opposed to family planning, and another 16 percent fear side effects or have other health-related concerns. If Nigeria’s fertility rate remains unchanged, the country will be home to 500 million people by 2050.
In Pakistan, where 24 percent of births are unintended, surveys show similar barriers. Ninety-six percent of married women know about effective contraceptive methods, but only 22 percent are using one. More than one-quarter of women who do not plan to use contraceptives report that their fertility is “up to God” and 23 percent report that they or their family members are opposed to family planning. Pakistan’s population would more than double from 174 million to 379 million by 2050 if current fertility trends hold constant.
Peak Planet? Population Growth and Consumption Strain Environmental Resources
Because Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries’ demographic trajectories may not follow the path laid out in population projections, we can’t take a world of nine billion for granted. While human ingenuity and technological advancements have improved standards of living in many countries, scientists caution that the combination of rising human numbers and growing consumption has serious environmental implications. Already, the quantity and quality of fresh water supplies are under strain, and forests in many developing countries are being rapidly depleted.
Population projections are much more than wonkish speculation – they foreshadow the serious problems that lie ahead if health, environment, and development policies aren’t strengthened. If the UN projections of our demographic future are to bear any semblance of reality, we must move beyond the status quo. While improving physical access to family planning should remain a top priority, meeting unmet need will also require addressing the deep-seated challenges of women’s education and empowerment.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and former senior research associate at Population Action International.
Sources: Bongaarts and Sinding (2009), Bongaarts (2006), Futures Institute, Guttmacher Institute and UN Population Fund, Measure DHS, O’Neill, Dalton, Fuchs, Jiang, Shonali Pachauri, and Katarina Zigova (2010), UN Population Division, Washington Post.
Photo Credit: “Afghan Internally Displaced Persons,” courtesy of flickr user United Nations Photo.