Population is Sexy and Serious.

Here is why it matters to us.

By Alisha Graves

Homo sapiens took until very recently – 1800 – to reach the one billion milestone. Today we number about 7.6 billion. The world’s  population is conservatively projected to reach 11.2 billion people by the end of the century. Many think we could approach the UN high projection of 13.2 billion, due to unrealistic assumptions about fertility decline in less-developed countries. While the rate of growth is slowing down (1.1 percent per year, as opposed to 1.24 percent ten years back), the absolute numbers are as high as ever.

Demographic momentum is a powerful force and needs to be countered with much greater international attention. An additional 83 million people are added to the planet each year. That is the equivalent of another Germany or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coincidentally, there are about the same number of unintended pregnancies per year. This means that women and their partners want to have smaller families, but biology, barriers, and contraceptive failure make this hard to achieve. So by better preventing unintended pregnancies, we could meet the basic needs of tens of millions of women each year and help stabilize population along the way.

There are three factors that affect population: birth rates, death rates, and migration. Until Elon Musk has figured out how to colonize Mars, migration won’t affect global population. Increased death rates can slow population growth, but is a terrible tactic to achieve it. We are left looking at birth rates. Promoting less sex would not be a popular platform, so how can we bring down fertility? There are four viable options:

  1. Raising the age that women have their first child
  2. Increasing contraceptive prevalence (Surprise! Voluntary use of family planning allows couples to enjoy sex without procreation)
  3. Making abortion safer and easier to access
  4. Empowering girls and women to make important life choices, for example, whether and when to have a child.

It is abundantly clear that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be easier to achieve in the context of slower population growth. Ninety-nine percent of population growth in this century will occur in the less and least developed countries. With the exception of some oil-rich states, no low-income country with a fertility rate of over 5 children per woman has ever “graduated” to become a middle income country. This phenomenon suggests that for high-fertility countries, a drop in average family size must precede development.

Lowering fertility eases demand for basic social services and human resources; the ratio of nurses and teachers per capita improves when population growth slows. The same is true for demand for earth’s finite resources. Smaller families mean more resources per person at the household level, e.g. water, food and land. Let’s take the example of Niger - where the population is growing faster than ever before seen in human history and is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050. Even if the country succeeds in reducing by half the proportion of people undernourished, there will still be nearly two times more people who are hungry due to population growth.

Venture Strategies for Health and Development (VSHD) aims to help stabilize population growth by the end of this century by securing women’s freedom to determine their family size. To achieve this, we are working in earnest on the four points above. Ensuring women have the resources, knowledge, and power to choose their family size is a precursor to reaching wider development goals. Contrary to what some people assert, it is possible to care about global population, i.e. human numbers, and sexual health and rights of individuals. Indeed, these two concerns have much more common ground than is often acknowledged.

Women’s lives are transformed when they are able to make choices about whether and when to have children. Making choices about timing and number of children is still out of reach for many women, especially those in poorer parts of the world. Family planning is a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed and VSHD is dedicated to upholding it.

We believe that population can and will be stabilized only by fully delivering on what girls and women want: viable alternatives to early marriage and unplanned childbearing. We know this can be achieved through quality secondary education and full and easy access to quality family planning services, backed up by safe abortion. The average fertility rate in high-income countries is 1.7 children per woman. Contraceptive revolutions in these countries helped them get there. VSHD is committed to ensuring that women in poorer parts of the world get access to the same information and means necessary to make choices about their family size.

Please join us in helping to make this happen in one generation’s time.


Selected References

All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (APPG). 2007. “Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its impact upon the millennium development goals.” http://www.appg-popdevrh.org.uk/Return%20of%20the%20Population%20Growth%20Factor.pdf

Bruce, Judith and John Bongaarts. 2009. The New Population Challenge. In Laurie Mazur (ed.), A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge. Washington, DC: Island Press. 260-275.

Campbell, M., Sahin-Hodoglugil, N. N., & Potts, M. (2006). Barriers to fertility regulation: A review of the literature. Studies in Family Planning, 37(2), 87–98.

Gerland, P., A.E. Raftery, H. Ševčiková, N. Li, D. Gu, T. Spoorenberg, L. Alkema, B.K. Fosdick, J. Chunn, N. Lalic, G. Bay, T. Buettner, G.K. Heilig, and J. Wilmoth (2014), World population stabilization unlikely this century, Science, 346, 234-237, doi:10.1126/science.1257469.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. ESA/P/WP/248.