Broadening the Response to Population Momentum

Population Briefs, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Broadening the Response to Population Momentum


Until the mid-1990s, policymakers took a single approach to addressing population growth: increasing access to family planning. But in early 1994, Population Council demographer John Bongaarts published a ground-breaking analysis, "Population policy options in the developing world," in the journal Science. The article advocated a significantly expanded approach, particularly investing in the lives of adolescent girls, to advance public health and wellbeing while slowing the pace of population growth.

The Landscape

In 1994, the population of the developing world stood at 4.5 billion. The governments of many developing countries had adopted policies, particularly family planning programs, to reduce population growth. Family planning services provided information about and access to contraception to allow couples to choose when to have children and how many. The programs contributed to a sharp rise in the percentage of couples using contraception, from 10 percent in the mid-1960s to 50 percent in 1990; concurrently a significant decline occurred in the average number of children born per woman, from 6.1 to 3.8.

Despite these noteworthy changes in reproductive behavior, population growth continued apace, with the population of Africa alone predicted to nearly quintuple, from 0.6 billion in 1990 to 2.8 billion in 2100. Many analysts found it hard to understand why massive growth would continue despite declining fertility rates. The analysis that Bongaarts published in 1994 explained why. The growth was a by-product of the fact that the largest generation of adolescents in history was entering their childbearing years. A large cohort of young people generates "population momentum." That is, even if all young women have only two children, they will produce more than enough births to maintain significant growth over decades. Bongaarts showed that population momentum was the biggest contributor to population growth.

The Paradigm Shift

Bongaarts also offered several recommendations. First, while family planning services had achieved much, their quality and reach needed to be increased. Many women who wanted to avoid or delay pregnancy were not using a modern method of contraception. Services needed to be fully voluntary, reach more women and couples, and offer a wider choice of methods.

Second, to attenuate population momentum, Bongaarts recommended taking steps to increase the age at which a young woman has her first child. …

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