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People, People, People

8 minute read
George Russell

Diplomats and demographers, economists and family planners, the elite brigades of global social science, will converge on Mexico City next week to tackle a formidable issue: the relentless growth of world population. They will hear some good news. In the ten years since the last United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Population, which was held in Bucharest, the annual growth rate of the world’s population has declined from 2% to 1.7%.

But that positive statistic stands out amid an otherwise sobering array. During the past decade, the number of people on earth increased by 770 million, to 4.75 billion. The World Bank estimates that in 2025, a date within the foreseeable lifetime of most Americans under 30, global population could nearly double, to about 8.3 billion. Of that total, about 7 billion will be residents of the undercapitalized, undernourished Third World.

The consequences of a failure to bring the world’s population growth under control are frightening. They could include widespread hunger and joblessness, accompanied by environmental devastation and cancerous urban growth. Politically, the outcome could be heightened global instability, violence and authoritarianism.

Says Science Fiction Writer Isaac Asimov, the author of numerous essays on demography: “Population growth at current rates will create a world without hope, gripped by starvation and desperation. It will be worse than a jungle because we have weapons immensely more destructive and vicious than teeth and claws.”

The U.N.’s decision to hold its population conference in Mexico City could hardly be more appropriate. In all its splendor and squalor, the Mexican capital is the archetype of Third World megacities that are climbing to the top of the list of the world’s major urban centers (see following story). Says Allan Rosenfield, director of Columbia University’s Center for Population and Family Health: “We in the West haven’t done very well managing our big cities. How Indonesia, India, Mexico and other Third World countries can handle them is beyond my comprehension.”

Among those who have tried to focus increased attention on the population issue is former World Bank President Robert McNamara. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, he argues that the much heralded drop in the world’s population growth rate during the ’70s has led to overconfidence and the mistaken idea that “efforts to deal with [population] problems can therefore be relaxed.” McNamara points out that the global figures for the past decade have been distorted by the experience of China, where a draconian birth control program that includes financial rewards and penalties to encourage one-child families has reduced the fertility rate by half.

There has been no such improvement in many other areas. In black Africa, some national fertility rates have actually increased in the past decade. The average number of children born to a woman in Kenya is now eight; when that is combined with a declining infant mortality rate, the country’s population could balloon from 20 million today to 83 million in 2025. In Bangladesh, the fertility rate figure is 6.3, which means that 266 million people (nearly three times the present population) might be squeezed into an area the size of Wisconsin by 2025. With a fertility rate of 4.7, India will become the world’s most populous country by about 2045, with 1.5 billion people. By comparison, Soviet women now have an average of 2.4 children, while American women have 1.8 children; the figure for Western Europe is even lower, 1.6.

Although in the past two decades Third World economies have had higher growth rates than those of the U.S. and Western Europe, in many countries that advance has been severely diluted by rapid population growth. Between 1955 and 1980, for example, per capita income in the U.S. grew from $7,000 to $11,500 (expressed in constant 1980 dollars), while in India it increased from $170 to $260, nearly doubling the disparity between the two countries. By the year 2000, some 630 million young adults will join the Third World’s labor force, while industrialized countries will add only 20 million young workers. As a result, Third World wages will probably remain at their low levels. That may encourage the flow of manufacturing jobs from industrialized countries to developing nations, but it could also provoke protectionist threats to the international free-trade system.

Some of the baleful effects of excessive population growth are already evident. In addition to unrestrained urban growth, McNamara notes the increasing inadequacy of Third World agriculture, owing in part to rural overpopulation and economic distortions caused by efforts to palliate the rising tide of urban consumers. In such countries as Tanzania and India, where people depend on firewood for fuel, deforestation is damaging flood control, speeding erosion and adding to the hardship of merely staying alive. Citing the example of China, McNamara warns that rapid population growth may also lead to greater and more coercive state intrusions into private life, ranging from forced sterilization to restrictions on freedom of movement.

Many population experts accept McNamara’s facts, while objecting to the tone of his conclusions. According to Rafael Salas, executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and chief organizer of the upcoming Mexico City conference, “There is room for concern, but not panic.” He points out that countries in the Third World increasingly recognize the importance of population control. In its 1984 Development Report, the World Bank notes that 85 nations in the Third World, containing about 95% of its population, now provide some form of public support, however inadequate, to family-planning programs. An additional 27 countries do not. Almost half of these are in Africa, where incomes are the lowest and population growth rates the highest in the world.

While the conference delegates debate whether the world’s Malthusian nightmare is lifting or drawing closer to reality, they will also face a challenge from the Reagan Administration. As part of its vocal antiabortion stance in a U.S. presidential election year, the Administration has announced sharp new restrictions on family-planning assistance for any organization or country that sanctions abortion. The impact of the policy change may be substantial: it is estimated that U.S. contributions of $240 million represent nearly one-quarter of total worldwide aid spent on family planning. The Administration will also inject its free-market philosophy into the population debate. In Mexico City, the U.S. dele gation, headed by Radio Free Europe Director James Buckley, will argue that government interference with economies is a major reason why world population growth has changed “from an asset in the development of economic potential to a peril.”

The Administration’s policy requires that family-planning aid be allotted in ways that prevent its use in population-control programs that include abortion. The real loss may fall upon private organizations that currently receive about $100 million of the $240 million annual U.S. allotment. Groups that promote abortion would be cut off entirely. Ironically, the policy is unlikely to accomplish the one thing that its right-to-life supporters might expect. An estimated 50 million abortions are now performed each year around the globe; perhaps half of those occur in Third World countries that have antiabortion laws.

One encouraging sign for the future, according to U.N. experts, is the substantial “unmet demand” for population control among Third World residents. In a survey of 17 slowly developing countries, the U.N. found that while the average number of children per family ranged from 3.8 to 8.3, the average number of children desired was 3.7 to 4.7. The difference between desire and reality is due to the lack of available family-planning education and services.

One of the most impressive examples of a Third World country that has made progress in curbing population growth is Thailand (pop. 49 million). In the past three decades, the Thai birth rate has declined by nearly 40%, from 46.6 per 1,000 people to 28.6. The population growth rate has dropped from about 3.4% to 1.95%. One reason for the change is a determined effort to extend health care and family planning to rural areas. Thailand has more than 4,000 village health centers staffed with 220,000 paramedics in addition to village doctors and local assistant midwives. One Thai private group offers farm production and marketing assistance to contraceptive users; as a result, rates of contraceptive use have risen as high as 80% in some villages.

Such efforts, however, require not only will but money. The World Bank estimates that $7.6 billion will be necessary if the Third World is to achieve a rapid decline in fertility by the year 2000. That figure pales against the estimated $600 billion a year that the world spends on armaments. Indeed, the funds spent on population control would probably turn out to be a bargain. Says Conference Organizer Salas: “There is a lack of understanding among policymakers of the links between population and global stability. ” — By George Russell.

Reported by Rail Samghabadi/New York and Barrett Seaman/Washington

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