With much attention in the international family planning community directed to the impending anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Developmen
t and the closing date of the Millennium Development Goals, the fact that 2012 is the 60th anniversary of two other milestones in population programming may have escaped notice. In 1952, the International Planned Parenthood Federation
was created, and India became the first country to formulate a national policy
to reduce population growth.
These and many other landmarks are highlighted in World Population Policies: Their Origin, Evolution and Impact, a new book by demographer John May that reviews several decades of policies, advocacy, and program interventions addressing the full range of diverse demographic trends seen globally.
May, who spent more than two decades working on population issues at the World Bank and other international institutions before recently assuming a fellowship at the Center for Global Development, is well-positioned to provide such an ambitious overview. Although the breadth of material included in the book means that some topics receive less coverage than a specialist might wish, it serves as a sound introduction to this diverse field, and offers some particularly interesting case studies.
The book’s main chapters begin with a summary of current population trends, including a comprehensive array of figures and statistics about population size, distribution, and projections. Some important concepts, such as the demographic transition and dividend, are perhaps covered too quickly, and in such cases the book would have benefited from more than a handful of figures, charts, and graphs. May classifies regions and countries as demographic “hotspots,” where the number of people outstrips available resources, and “coldspots,” which have too few residents. He makes an ambitious suggestion that high-density countries facing resource challenges, such as Bangladesh, should consider promoting rapid fertility decline below replacement level to stop population growth, then reverse course and increase to a rate that promotes a stable population – but such a reversal from low fertility is a feat that has stymied several countries in Europe and East Asia.
Evolution of the “Population Movement”
In addition to summarizing the ways that demographic issues have been framed in the past several decades, May briefly describes the long-running debate between demographers and economists about the ways in which population is theorized to affect economic development.
Three points in this chapter were particularly striking: First, the concept of family planning as a human right dates from well before the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. In 1968, the Tehran International Conference on Human Rights defined the ability to choose family size and spacing as a fundamental right; still, some programs, such as India’s under the Emergency-era government of the late 1970s, adopted coercive practices. Second, population policies are not limited to official initiatives targeting fertility, mortality, and migration, but also encompass implicit or “passive” policy measures that arise without advance planning or that have an unintended effect on demographic trends. Related to this, May suggests that “contextual variables” such as education, health, gender, culture, and religion can have a greater impact on population policies’ effectiveness and demographic outcomes than government structures or funding.
Although population policies are most often designed at the national level, May’s discussion of the “population movement” highlights the influence of international networks and donors on such policies. By the late 1960s, the U.S. Agency for International Development had begun funding family planning programs overseas, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was active. Although the United States has become less dominant over time, population programming remains a Northern-driven movement.
Beginning with a meeting in Belgrade in 1965, a series of international population conferences successfully raised the prominence of population issues on the global development agenda and built consensus around international goals, while also becoming increasingly political.
May’s cautions about such conferences are timely given this month’s London Family Planning Summit: “Consensus-building through international conferences and their preparatory meetings is often inefficient as a process, whereas such events could be used to promote learning among policymakers and experts…The gap between the conferences’ resolutions and the actual policies implemented at country level is important to remember” (110).
Growth and Aging Distinguish the Demographic Divide
In his chapter focusing on the developing world, May notes that population policies have become broader in the nearly 20 years since the Cairo conference, incorporating a reproductive rights framework while also addressing new issues such as the environment, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. But under this more holistic approach, national policies are susceptible to becoming overly diffuse, with an ambitious agenda not matched by concrete action plans.
The challenges expand to policy implementation as well. Kenya is profiled as emblematic of the difficulties facing population programs in fast-growing sub-Saharan Africa, particularly political disinterest, mismanagement, opposition from some religious groups, and commodity shortages. But when implemented well, such policies can be very successful. The book offers a thorough summary of research findings on the common features of effective family planning programs (such as leadership, monitoring performance data, and opening access to contraceptive methods at lower levels of the health system), as well as their demographic impact. Several country examples are cited to show that family planning programs reduce lifetime fertility rates by 0.5 to 1.5 children per woman, while also benefiting individual and social health, income, and well-being.
While population policies have been often effective at shaping demographic trends in high-fertility settings, even in changing cultural norms about family size, May notes that their impact has been notably weaker in reversing the trajectory of declining fertility in developed countries. While countries such as France have maintained a fertility rate close to, albeit still below, replacement level thanks to generous paid parental leave, housing initiatives and public child care facilities, policies that try to boost low fertility through financial compensation have been particularly ineffective.
Developed countries are less likely to have formal population policies and tend to address demographic issues through incentives and disincentives implemented by multiple agencies. Aging and immigration are receiving greater attention in such countries, along with low fertility rates. Population aging raises policy concerns that are both economic and social, and May focuses largely on the benefit of reducing incentives for early retirement. He notes that thanks to improvements in health and life expectancy, “today’s 65-year-old persons are young compared to their counterparts” of previous generations (180). Despite their economic soundness, government efforts to raise retirement ages are widely unpopular, and France’s newly elected president has promised to cut the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.
What Comes Next
Some observations are intriguing and could have been further detailed. For example, May notes a recent “fragmentation” of organizations working on population issues, and suggests that “too many institutions and NGOs appear to support their own limited mandates as they also struggle for resources that are less abundant” (5). Decentralization and integration within health systems is a growing trend that could have been discussed in more detail, along with the legacy of pronatalist laws and attitudes by colonial powers in Africa, the effect of recent European efforts to tighten immigration policies, and the achievements of forums designed for collaboration on population policy issues (for example, the United Nations Commission on Population and Development or the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition).
Looking towards the future, May foresees continued integration of demography with related development issues, such as poverty reduction and equitable growth, gender and youth perspectives, environmental issues, and conflict prevention. He notes a few challenges, including sub-Saharan Africa’s lag in fertility decline and the overall ineffectiveness of policies aimed at addressing the pressures of urbanization on infrastructure and resources.
In high-fertility settings, May recommends that instead of framing reproductive health writ large, policies should more specifically target family planning and women’s empowerment, including education and income-generation opportunities as well as legal rights. Bangladesh is presented as a model for other countries, as a setting where cultural change and economic development laid the groundwork for successful family planning outreach efforts. Most of all, May entreats government leaders to maintain a policy focus on population issues, regardless of where they stand in the demographic divide.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group.
Photo Credit: “Crowded Shopping District,” courtesy of flickr user EnvironmentBlog.