SEATTLE — Suffering from issues such as widespread hunger, civil strife or a higher disease burden, the developing world faces many challenges. Oftentimes, these developmental challenges are coupled with very high fertility rates.
According to a recent report by the Population Institute — a Washington D.C. non-profit dedicated to reproductive health and women’s rights in the developing world — population growth threatens to compound these issues.
To understand the relationship between population growth and other development issues, some explanation is necessary. Essentially, high fertility rates are correlated strongly with other indicators such as average lifespan, access to clean water or average level of education. Some of the poorest places in the world, such as Afghanistan, Chad, Eritrea, Burundi, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen also have the highest fertility rates.
The challenges of widespread poverty and high population growth become clear, given the strong correlation between food scarcity and demographic data. The International Food Policy Research Institute each year publishes the Global Hunger Index (GHI) rankings, a multi-dimensional indicator of food security. Scores of 30 or more indicate an extremely alarming food (in)security scenario.
The Population Institute report shows that countries with GHI ratings of 30 or more, such as Burundi and Eritrea, are also predicted to grow in the next 35 years by 154 and 120 percent, respectively.
Why is this the case? There are several reasons why fertility rates might be so high in poorer countries. First, lack of access to contraception is a huge barrier to family planning, and the poorest families often cannot afford it or are unaware of its uses. More broadly, neonatal and maternal care is often minimal or nonexistent in conflict zones or extremely poor countries. Consequently, infant mortality tends to be higher, making family planning quite difficult.
To reach the desired size, a family might have to have more children, with the expectation that some might perish. In poorer, mostly agriculture-based economies, children also represent a huge source of free labor. Families might have many children in order to help run the farm.
There is a symbiosis between high fertility rates and low levels of development. A bulging population puts pressure on public infrastructure, health systems, food availability and other economic resources, curbing development indicators, thus feeding back into a high fertility rate and large population growth.
According to the report by the Population Institute, these high fertility rates create a huge strain on already thinly-spread resources. In some countries, such as Yemen, this is a huge concern, where a rapidly growing population exacerbates a near-disastrous level of poverty and an intense civil war. The country currently has a population of 26.6 million, but this figure is expected to increase by about 49 percent by 2050.
Unfortunately, Yemen is also one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, with only about half of its rural population having access to clean water, and available water resources rapidly dwindling. Dividing that resource among a much larger population will prove to be a huge development challenge for Yemen in the near future.
The report also identifies a “demographic transition,” where a country reaches a point in its development whereas indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality begin to improve, and consequently, the country transitions to a relatively lower fertility rate. The 20 countries described in the report fall somewhere short of this transition, and due to unique factors and thus may have trouble reaching demographic escape velocity in the next few decades.
However, many countries with similar population growth issues have successfully transitioned before. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recognizes that high population growth represents a barrier to development and prioritizes certain at-risk countries for family planning and maternal health programs.
So far, 24 countries have graduated from USAID’s targeted programming. The 24 countries that currently populate the list, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, also happen to be those most at-risk identified by the Population Institute’s report. Clearly, international aid agencies such as USAID are aware of the demographic challenges facing developing countries and are directing resources towards alleviating them.
Reproductive health isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all of development. Reducing fertility rates and population growth probably won’t solve the developmental challenges facing the most at-risk countries.
Furthermore, strides made in development are naturally accompanied by reduced fertility rates. Access to water, healthcare, plentiful food and political stability all eventually reduce growth rates, evidenced by the fact that the wealthiest countries have low or even negative population growth rates.
Good reproductive health and sustainable population growth are both causes and consequences of successful poverty reduction efforts. As such, contraceptive, maternal and neonatal health and family planning programs are clearly an important part of any multi-front development strategy.
– Derek Marion