Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World

Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World

Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World

Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World


The effect of demography on economic performance has been the subject of intense debate in economics for nearly two centuries. In recent years opinion has swung between the Malthusian views of Coale and Hoover, and the cornucopian views of Julian Simon. Unfortunately, until recently, data weretoo weak and analytical models too limited to provide clear insights into the relationship. As a result, economists as a group have not been clear or conclusive. This volume, which is based on a collection of papers that heavily rely on data from the 1980s and 1990s and on new analytical approaches, sheds important new light on demographic--economic relationships, and it provides clearer policy conclusions than any recent work on the subject. In particular,evidence from developing countries throughout the world shows a pattern in recent decades that was not evident earlier: countries with higher rates of population growth have tended to see less economic growth. An analysis of the role of demography in the "Asian economic miracle" strongly suggeststhat changes in age structures resulting from declining fertility create a one-time "demographic gift" or window of opportunity, when the working age population has relatively few dependants, of either young or old age, to support. Countries which recognize and seize on this opportunity can, as theAsian tigers did, realize healthy bursts in economic output. But such results are by no means assured: only for countries with otherwise sound economic policies will the window of opportunity yield such dramatic results. Finally, several of the studies demonstrate the likelihood of a causalrelationship between high fertility and poverty. While the direction of causality is not always clear and very likely is reciprocal (poverty contributes to high fertility and high fertility reinforces poverty), the studies support the view that lower fertility at the country level helps create apath out of poverty for many families. Population Matters represents an important further step in our understanding of the contribution of population change to economic performance. As such, it will be a useful volume for policymakers both in developing countries and in international development agencies.


Two central questions have dominated debates about the place of population in efforts to spur social and economic development: is rapid population growth an important contributor to poverty, inequality, and lagging development (the Debate about Whether)? And, if so, what is the best way to bring down rapid population growth (the Debate about How)? The Debate about How produced much rancor and uncertainty. Was 'development the best contraceptive', as was colorfully asserted in the early 1970s, or should direct interventions, such as family planning services, receive the higher priority?

The debate was largely resolved at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The nations of the world committed themselves at Cairo to a comprehensive approach that includes both high quality reproductive health services, including family planning, and broad development efforts—to improve educational levels, reduce infant and maternal mortality, and bring about greater gender equality.

Meanwhile, on the Debate about Whether, economists through the 1970s and early 1980s were questioning whether the data supported the neo-Malthusian concern that rapid population growth would undermine development. By the late 1980s there was considerable doubt among economists that population growth deserved the high priority it had been receiving. An influential report of the US National Research Council, Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions, presented the view, characterized by a co-author of this volume, Allen C. Kelley, as 'revisionist': ' On balance, we reach the qualitative conclusion that slower population growth could be beneficial to economic development for most of the developing countries'. Perhaps as a result, the Cairo conference gave little attention to any macroeconomic rationale for public concern with continuing high population growth in many developing countries.

It was against this background that Dr Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) asked the Rockefeller Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to sponsor a workshop on recently accumulated new evidence on demography and economic development. The workshop was to be part of the preparatory process for a special session of the UN General Assembly in June 1999 to assess progress in implementing the Cairo Programme of Action. For its part, the Rockefeller Foundation was pleased to be able to offer as the venue for the workshop its Bellagio Study and Conference Center, the site of many significant meetings on population over the years. The workshop was organized by Steven W. Sinding, Director of Population Sciences at the Foundation, along with, at his initiative, Nancy Birdsall, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As this book reveals, the workshop was highly successful, and I am grateful to Dr Sinding and his colleagues for their commitment and hard work.

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