“We have a fairly unique moment in the history of the world,” said Steven Philip Kramer, a professor at National Defense University, at the Wilson Center on April 17. “There’s never been a time when people have voluntarily produced fewer children than is necessary for sustaining the population.” [Video Below]
›January 7, 2014 // By Laurie Mazur
While there has been much research on the effect of valuable natural resource extraction on a state’s domestic development (e.g., the “resource curse”), Wilson Center Fellow Jeff Colgan focuses on how natural resource extraction affects foreign policy. In Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War, Colgan finds that “petrostates” – countries where revenue from oil exports exceeds 10 percent of GDP – are twice as likely to engage in inter-state conflict than non-petrostates.
One year ago, the United States government froze all property of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions within the United States. The move was part of a broader effort to compel the Islamic Republic to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program. How is it working out?
Once again, the Iranian government is reversing its population policy – its fertility policy, to be more precise. Alarmed by the country’s rapidly aging population, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now calling on women to procreate and have more children, and the Iranian Minister of Health and Medical Education Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi has recently said, “The budget for the population control program has been fully eliminated and such a project no longer exists in the health ministry. The policy of population control does not exist as it did previously.”
›August 8, 2012 // By Elizabeth Leahy Madsen
In late July, Iran’s government announced that it would no longer fund family planning programs, a dramatic reversal following 20 years of support. The change is especially abrupt for a country that has been lauded as a family planning success story, with thorough rural health services and an educated female population contributing to one of the swiftest demographic transitions in history.Although Iran’s government is headed by a conservative religious hierarchy and President Ahmadinejad had earlier implemented some pronatalist policies, the decision is still surprising for several reasons. It is also unlikely to meet its objectives; irrelevant to deeper economic concerns; unlikely to be popular; and most disheartening of all, a tremendous step backwards for individual empowerment and wellbeing.
Budget Cuts Ignore Demand and Counter Human Rights
Once family planning services are as widely available and adopted as they have been in Iran, demand for them is well entrenched and unlikely to ebb. Use of family planning offers several benefits that are tangible to individuals and families as well as societies: It improves the health of women and children while also promoting higher educational attainment and household incomes. Iranian women and couples are cognizant of these benefits and unlikely to cede them. Nearly 60 percent of Iranian women of reproductive age used an effective contraceptive method in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available.
Moreover, access to reproductive health services has been widely accepted as a human right for decades. Ironically, one of the first international accords “that couples have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and a right to adequate education and information in this respect” was affirmed in Tehran in 1968. The Iranian government’s decision to limit such access is a clear refutation of this right.
Unlikely Prospects for Success
From a demographic perspective, the government’s attempt to make family planning services unavailable or unaffordable is unlikely to meet their stated objective of motivating larger families and higher population growth.
The government has already tried a more common approach for boosting fertility rates, offering direct payments to families for each child at birth and each successive year until adulthood. Such financial incentives have been implemented in several other low fertility countries, but as demographer John May has noted, they are typically much less effective compared to more comprehensive approaches addressing child care, work-family balance, and housing.
It is unusual for a government to take the more draconian step of restricting public access to contraception, whether through economic or legal means. One parallel is Romania during the Ceausescu era. Contraception was banned in 1966 and without access to family planning, women turned to illegal abortion. After an initial jump, fertility rates began to fall steadily, and by 1989 the country had the highest rate of maternal mortality in Europe. Although Iran’s government has not outlawed contraception outright and it should remain available through the private sector, cutting back services will create serious implications for lower income women who rely on public services. As the Romanian experience demonstrates, the desire to determine family size does not dissipate when contraception becomes unavailable.
Iran’s Challenges Go Beyond Aging
The stated justification for the government’s decision is to avoid population aging and eventual decline if fertility rates remain below replacement level. However, this rationale overlooks the serious economic constraints that are affecting all Iranians, particularly those of childbearing age. Until recently, the number of people ages 15 to 24, who include most entrants to the labor market, was growing steadily due to past high fertility. Youth unemployment stands around 23 percent, and a RAND analysis described the challenge of ensuring that these young people find jobs as “one of the most pressing social and economic problems the government has faced.” As the country urbanizes, the cost of living has risen sharply, exacerbated by the inflationary effects of international sanctions.
“The cost of living has risen a lot and the currency has lost its value by half,” said Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who directs the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. “So at this moment, where families are under economic pressure, the government is under economic pressure. To suddenly introduce the idea of having larger families and encouraging girls to get married at a much younger age – it’s one of the most un-thought, unplanned decisions taken by the Ahmadinejad government.”
As these challenges diminish young people’s economic prospects, they also serve to further tamp down fertility, limiting the government’s chances of success at markedly increasing population growth.
Esfandiari was surprised by the decision. “Iran was seen as a role model” of the demographic transition, she said. “It will not work. Iranian women are plucky, they are thoughtful. Sixty-five percent of entering classes at universities are women. How can you convince them to have a child every year?”
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.
Sources: Associated Press, Crane et al. (2008), Financial Times, Gribble and Voss (2009), Hord et al. (1991), Kligman (1998), May (2012), New York Times, Roudi (2010), Singh and Darroch (2012), UN Population Division, World Bank.
Photo Credit: “MMN,” courtesy of flickr user Emdadi (Mohammad Emdadi).
›January 25, 2012 // By ECSP StaffThe original version of this article, by Ethan Goffman, appeared on the Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy blog.
In a time of polarized politics in the United States, over the environment and just about everything else, an overlooked development is how much the military, as well as the national security apparatus, has taken on climate change and other environmental challenges. “Environment and Security” was thus a profoundly important choice of theme for the 2012 National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment, held last week in Washington, DC. With the early effects of climate change apparently already occurring, notably in an increase in natural disasters and in a new northwest passage through the Arctic, those responsible for our security can’t afford to sit around and engage in speculation that climate change is caused by sunspots or isn’t really occurring. It is the military’s job, after all, to take action against potential threats rather than getting immersed in domestic politics.
The concern with climate change is the next step in a widening of the concept of security from strict military matters, to include such interrelated strands as food and water access, public health, and the environment. Much of the military has already acknowledged that armed force alone won’t make us safe. “Energy security, economic security, environmental security, and national security are all inextricably linked. Address one and you need to think of the others,” explained Vice-Admiral Dennis McGinn at the conference.
One obvious linkage is the connection of our oil dependency with security risks that can easily draw us into conflict in politically unstable parts of the world. Just how much the recent wars in the Middle East are about oil, and how much about a clash of civilizations, is a matter of considerable debate, although undoubtedly both factors play a part. The Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, choking outgoing oil deliveries, underscores vulnerability on the energy issue. From another angle, in Afghanistan, the military experienced the fragility of supply lines for a force strongly dependent on large quantities of oil. The Air Force, in particular, is working on algal jet fuel to free us from such reliance. And the Navy’s need for more icebreakers and other capacity shows concern regarding shipping and resource exploitation enabled by the melting of Arctic ice and the new passage.
Continue reading on the SSPP blog.
Photo Credit: Sherri Goodman and Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, courtesy of Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.
›This is the second post in a series profiling the process of building political commitment in countries whose governments have made strong investments in family planning. Read the first post, on Rwanda’s recent rapid demographic changes, here.
To date, only 11 countries outside of the developed world, China, and a handful of small island states have reached the end of the demographic transition, with fertility rates declining from more than four children per woman to replacement level or lower.* Of these, only two countries have completed the transition in 15 years or less – and both might surprise you. One is Cuba, whose government dispensed family planning services to its relatively small population in the 1970s through accessible primary health care facilities and legalized safe abortion eight years before the United States did. The other: Iran.
Following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s new theocracy adopted a socially conservative, pro-natalist outlook. Half of the population lived in rural areas, which typically constrains access to health services. In addition, abortion was illegal in most circumstances. According to the UN, Iranian women had an average of 6.5 children each in the early 1980s and the population was growing nearly four percent annually, a rate high enough for it to double in 19 years.
But, by the early 2000s, Iran’s fertility rate had dropped below two children per woman. The swift changes can be attributed to the efforts of government officials concerned about meeting the employment needs of a growing population, supported by public health experts who wanted to rebuild the eroded family planning program.
A Dramatic Policy Shift
several hundred thousand people were killed during the war – population growth was viewed positively. But as the war ended, policy directives did an about-face.
Although public health officials had framed the need for reinvigorated family planning programs in health-related terms for years, the motivation for government officials to change policy appears to have been economic. The national budget agency informed the prime minister that after nearly a decade of conflict, the country lacked adequate funding to both rebuild and to meet the needs of its people. The prime minister responded quickly, directing that demographic factors be integrated into the new development plan and stating that “Iranians’ standard of living was being eroded by the growth of the country’s population.”
“Pragmatism Has Prevailed Over Pure Ideology”
After convincing their superiors, Iranian government officials who supported family planning faced the added challenge of garnering the backing of the influential religious establishment. Shortly after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini officially sanctioned the use of contraception, though his perspective was not universal among clerics. Once the prime minister decided to introduce a national family planning program, officials sought support from additional religious authorities. Opposition was minimal after two key institutions offered endorsements. The High Judicial Council determined that there was “no Islamic barrier to family planning” in late 1988, and the Expediency Council approved the government’s plans soon after.
By late 1989, a new family planning program had been officially introduced. The program’s aims were to lengthen spacing between births; limit pregnancies in the early and late reproductive years; and lower fertility by educating the population and ensuring access to free and diverse contraceptive methods. By the mid-1990s, the government had fully integrated family planning into the existing primary health system.
Iran thus followed the example of other majority-Muslim countries where religion was not an impediment to family planning, including Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Oman. Just as in countries where highly Catholic populations have low fertility rates (Italy, Poland, Spain, and many others), religious guidance has been interpreted in varying ways in different settings and is not necessarily a central factor in individual fertility decisions. As Akbar Aghajanian and Amir H. Merhyar write in a summary of Iran’s family planning program, “Pragmatism has prevailed over pure ideology when necessary.”
The Contributions of Women’s Education and a Strong Health System
A new policy orientation was the critical first step, but successful implementation was necessary for Iran’s demographic trajectory to change in response. Fortunately, the government had some advantages in rolling out its new program, namely a strong existing health system, a history of past efforts to promote family planning, and an educated female population among whom demand for contraception was high.
Rural development became a priority of the government after the revolution and resulted in improved access to an array of services. In rural areas, community health workers receive two years of training to provide family planning services along with other preventative care and treatment. Services are also available at rural health “houses,” urban clinics, and higher-level centers around the country.
The status of women has also played a major role. A research exercise conducted by IIASA estimated that improvements in educational attainment among women were responsible for about one-third of Iran’s fertility decline between 1980 and 2005. Women’s literacy was already rising during the period of the revolution and reached 74 percent by 1996, while attitudes toward female employment became more supportive. By the late 1990s, new classes of university students included more women than men. The response to the 1989 program indicated that women clearly had an unmet demand for family planning. Use of modern contraception jumped from 31 percent in 1989 to 51 percent just five years later, then rose more slowly over the subsequent decade.
A Dividend Squandered?
The rapid changes in Iran’s age structure, thanks to declining fertility, have opened a window of opportunity for the country to boost economic growth through lower dependency ratios – a phenomenon called the demographic dividend. However, the dividend is not an automatic bonus, and Iran’s capacity to capitalize on its demographic change is questionable.
The unemployment rate among young people today is over 20 percent, indicating that the economy is not generating sufficient jobs, which is a prerequisite to improving productivity. This inopportune climate may even contribute to a further decline in the fertility rate: Some observers have suggested that the country’s economic troubles and rising costs of living have motivated young people to delay marriage and have smaller families. “Unemployment and high costs of living, coupled with social and political restrictions, have made [life] increasingly difficult for young Iranians,” Farzaneh Roudi of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) explained in a blog post last year.
Given Iran’s challenges in producing adequate jobs and other economic benefits for its population, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent unusual pronouncements on population issues are especially puzzling. Last year, Ahmadinejad introduced a pro-natalist policy offering direct payments to each child born, continuing until they reach adulthood, and later suggested that girls should marry at age 16 or 17.
But despite a high level of international media attention, most observers expect the policy to have little impact. Widespread adoption of family planning has become entrenched in society: 60 percent of Iranian women now use a modern contraceptive method. As PRB’s Roudi wrote in response to Ahmadinejad’s proposal, “Iranian women and men have gotten used to exercising their reproductive rights and would expect to be able to continue to do so.”
*The 11 countries that have achieved replacement fertility or lower outside of developed regions, China, and small island states are Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Iran, Lebanon, Myanmar, Thailand, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.
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.
Look for related analysis on the political implications of Iran’s changing age structure by Richard Cincotta on New Security Beat soon.
Sources: Abbasi-Shavazi, Lutz, Hosseini-Chavoshi and Samir (2008), Abbasi-Shavazi (2002), Aghajanian and Merhyar (1999), Christian Science Monitor, GlobalSecurity.org, The New York Times, Noble and Potts (1996), Population Reference Bureau, Roudi-Fahimi (2002), UN Population Division, World Bank.
Image Credit: “بیست و پنجم خرداد ۸,” courtesy of flickr user Recovering Sick Soul (Nima Fatemi); charts arranged by Sean Peoples and Elizabeth Leahy Madsen.
Join the Conversation
- Underage: Addressing Reproductive Health and HIV in Married Adolescents Wednesday, July 30, 2014
- National Security and Climate Change: What Do We Need to Know? Tuesday, July 29, 2014
- World Population Day 2014: Youth Engagement and the Sustainable Development Agenda Thursday, July 10, 2014