UN predictions put the world population at 8 billion in 2025. That’s an extra 5 billion people on the planet in less than a lifetime (the global population was 3 billion in 1960). The dramatic growth is driven by more people surviving beyond childhood and having children of their own, so it should be a cause for celebration of development, right?
Not everyone believes so, fearing that too many people will put unsustainable strain on resources. Humans are “a plague on the Earth”, says David Attenborough, nature documentary-maker and patron of NGO Population Matters. “Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us. We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves.” But is it fair to blame the poorest for straining natural resources? Or is it rather, as was Gandhi said, the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed?
Celebrity statistician Hans Rosling, whose popular YouTube videos have powerfully visualised the issue, argues that we do not need to panic about population growth. “The average number of children in the world is 2.4,” he says. “The number of children below eight years of age in India has stopped growing. The number of children in the total world has stopped growing. Most of the fertility transition is done.”
But Simon Ross, chief executive of Population Matters, disagrees. “I think Rosling’s complacency is wrong,” he says. “I think this is the issue that governments need to put a lot more money into.”
So will Attenborough’s view that population growth is a disaster for the planet prevail, or Rosling’s that it is a surmountable challenge? Either way, how will population growth affect development work and what are NGOs doing in response?
Promote family planning
The population of India, which is nearing 1.2 billion, has grown by that of the US since 1995 – and is projected to take over from China as the world’s most populous country in 2028. Vivek Baid, founder of Mission for Population Control, which works in West Bengal promoting family planning, says India’s population growth has meant the country hasn’t benefited from its development. “Rapidly increasing population doesn’t allow standard of living to go up in India,” he says. “It doesn’t allow better medical facilities for the poor. It doesn’t allow better food standards.” He berates the government and the main political parties for not prioritising family planning. “It should be top priority because only family planning can help to improve standards of living for the poor.”
John Bongaarts, vice-president of the US-based Population Council, agrees that there needs to be more focus on family planning. “In terms of demographic momentum, the first thing we need to do is to help women with their contraceptive needs,” he says. “Imagine you’re a woman in a rural area of Pakistan or Nigeria, it’s very hard to find a reliable source of contraceptives. Providing access to contraception is a top priority.”
A recent report from the Copenhagen Consensus, a group of economists that is calling for fewer sustainable development goals, said that for every $1 spent on family planning, there is a return of $120.
In a worst-case scenario, development in the poorest countries will be seriously hampered by population growth, argues Maaike van Min of Marie Stopes International. Van Min works in the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the countries with rapidly growing populations are found. She fears that unchecked population growth could “lead to a continued cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities: child mortality will stay high, education will remain low, literacy rates will remain low and therefore economic opportunities will also remain low.”
She says NGOs shouldn’t shy away from the subject. “There’s quite a lot of taboo around the topic of fertility rates, family planning and contraception. It’s difficult to say that in the future there will be too many people to sustain, but we need to be realistic on what women are already expressing that they need.”
Min believes the solution is relatively simple. “We don’t need to do anything revolutionary, all we need to do is provide women who have already expressed the need for family planning with that option.” In Senegal she found that sending teams to rural areas, working with the government and working with private healthcare providers all helped to improve access to contraception. “What is key that we take the power away from the government and [put it] more in the hands of women,” says van Min. “We can trust her to make a good choice.”
The countries that do succeed in reducing fertility rates can benefit from a demographic dividend, where there are more people in work than children to support. “If you have very rapid decline in fertility, the younger population is no longer growing so fast and the economy gets a boost because the number of workers per child goes up and that gives you a period of rapid economic growth,” says Bongaarts. “This is what happened in the east Asian ‘tiger’ countries like South Korea and Taiwan in the 70s. China and India are currently benefiting from a demographic dividend.”
Prepare for the youth bulge
A consequence of falling child mortality but continuing high fertility is a “youth bulge” – a high population of young people. In Africa, because increased numbers of increasingly educated people has not been matched by jobs, this has led to significant youth unemployment.
A young population offers a lot of potential for the development of a country, but only if their talents are realised through investment. “We like to think it’s great to have a lot of young people because that could be a potential resource for productive engagement,” says United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) economics adviser Michael Herrmann. “If all of these young people who are entering the labour market are productive it could give the economy a huge boost, but often there’s a gap between what we expect young people to do and the investment that we’re making.”
The solution is to equip youth in sub-Saharan Africa with 21st-century skills, says Michael Boampong, founder of NGO Young People We Care, which is headquartered in Ghana. “Often you have a situation where you increase investment in education but when young people come out they are disconnected with what the industrial sector requires,” he says. “We need to prepare them so they have the employable skills.”
NGOs can help by providing education and training and more, because investment in “human capital” includes all aspects of development work, says Herrmann. “Investing in human capital starts with nutrition at the earliest childhood. It includes sexual and reproductive health.” But this investment “is well beyond the capacities of the poorest countries ... It’s a call for development aid.”
A connection is often made between large numbers of unemployed young people and social unrest, even terrorism. But Herrmann says it’s important not to overplay this. “It almost makes it sound as if young people are a danger in themselves,” he says. “Evidence doesn’t support that. If there are a lot of young people and we don’t provide them with opportunities, you might have a backlash. But I wouldn’t say that more young people equals inevitably social unrest.”
Boampong says it is crucial that young people are listened to. Young People We Care encourage inter-generational dialogue between the youth and policymakers. “Currently one of the challenges we have in Africa is that there’s a disconnect between young people and governments,” he says. “Governments that are very disconnected with the young find themselves in situations like the Arab Spring. “Governments often see young people as a threat. They should try and maintain a closer connection to the youth.”
Governments need to involve young people in decision-making, provide jobs, and be transparent about what they are doing to reduce corruption, says Boampong.
Encourage long healthy lives
Another global demographic shift is ageing populations in developed countries such as Japan and Germany, and also in advanced developing countries. “In countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mongolia and Vietnam, the population over age 60 will triple by 2050,” William A Ryan wrote in an article for the UNFPA. “The growing health care and social support costs associated with ageing will pose tremendous challenges.”
In response to these changing populations, NGOs need to focus on preventing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in order to ensure older people are healthy. “It’s not just about life expectancy, it’s about healthy life expectancy,” says Toby Porter, chief executive of HelpAge International. “At the moment most development health is orientated towards infectious disease control, which is important, but aging populations means higher rates of NCDs. We need better regular monitoring of blood pressure. For example, undiagnosed hypertension is still responsible for more preventable deaths and avoidable disabilities than any other single cause around the world.”
Herrmann says that society will need to respond to a higher population of older people by redesigning pension systems and making sure that they continue to be positively engaged in their communities. But he adds that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that ageing populations are a cause for celebration. “Population ageing is a positive thing. It means we have had success in investing in people. It means development has taken place.”
How do you think demographic shifts will affect the way NGOs work? Is your NGO coming up with solutions? Tell us about them in the comments below.