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UN Reviews Development Goals, But Again Ignores Population Growth

Population growth is linked to conflict, water shortages and resource depletion, climate change and mass migrations. The global population is now 7.3 billion people, up from 2.5 billion in 1950, and is expected to swell to near 11 billion by the end of the century. World leaders convene this week at the United Nations and prepare to adopt new Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The draft document does not address population growth, and instead outlines goals on combating poverty, hunger and inequality, promoting peace with inclusive societies, protecting human rights, caring for the planet and its sustainability. “Certainly lowering high rates of population growth to manageable levels is not a panacea ensuring sustainable development for the least development countries,” notes demographer Joseph Chamie. “However, reducing rapid rates of population growth will contribute substantially to the developmental efforts of those countries by making national goals easier and less costly to achieve.” Every goal on sustainability could benefit from reduced population growth. – YaleGlobal

UN Reviews Development Goals, But Again Ignores Population Growth

UN sustainability goals should not overlook population growth centered in the poor, least developed countries
Joseph Chamie
YaleGlobal, 22 September 2015
Developing population gap: Booming population of Uganda, top, is set to reach same level as that for the United Kingdom – though the UK's was three times larger than Uganda's in 1995

NEW YORK: As world leaders convene for the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, to reflect on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 and adopt more goals for 2030, they ought to focus on the elephant in the room – a swelling global population that weighs on sustainability of social, economic and environmental development.

A swelling global population that has tripled since 1950, with a record high of 7.3 billion people, should not be overlooked in setting new international development goals.

According to the summit’s draft Declaration of the Sustainable Development Goals, the heads of state and government and high representatives resolve before 2030 “to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.” 

To achieve these lofty aims, the agenda includes a diverse set of topics, including 17 specific developmental goals and a broad range of 169 targets. Yet, population growth is not mentioned among the goals nor the targets.

Over the past 15 years, world population increased by 1.2 billion people and is now at a record high of 7.3 billion. During that time period, the population of the least developed countries grew nearly 10 times as fast as the more developed countries. The UN Population Division anticipates another billion by 2030 and at least 11 billion by the end of the century.

Today the average annual population increase of the least developed countries is 22 million compared to 3 million for the more developed countries. Also, whereas the combined populations of the least developed countries, about 954 million, represent 13 percent of the world’s population, they account for about 27 percent of the world’s annual population increase of about 84 million.

When the international community adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the population of the 47 more developed countries was about twice as large as that of the 48 least developed countries (see Figure 1). Due to the substantial differences in rates of demographic growth, the population of the least developed countries is expected to surpass the population of the more developed countries by 2030. Looking further ahead, the world’s least developed countries are projected to have twice the population size of the more developed countries by around 2070.

While the average annual rate of natural increase – births minus deaths - of the least developed countries is 2.5 percent, the rates among some of the poorest countries are in excess of 3 percent, which translates into a population doubling time of less than 25 years. Most of this growth is in Africa: The populations of Burundi, Chad, Niger, Somalia and Uganda, for example, are expected to double by 2040. The countries projected to increase at least fivefold by 2100 include Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

Figure 1

In contrast, the average annual rate of natural increase of the more developed countries is about one-10th of one percent. In addition, with the numbers of deaths outnumbering births, some 18 developed countries are experiencing negative rates of natural increase, including Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Japan. Immigration is the only alternative to fertility for population growth. In the absence of sufficient compensating immigration, the populations of these aging countries as well as those of 20 others are projected to be markedly smaller by 2030.

A comparison of two countries with the same area, Uganda and the United Kingdom, illustrates the profound demographic changes underway. Several years before the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000, the United Kingdom’s population was three times as large as Uganda’s. A few years after 2030, when the Sustainable Development Goals are scheduled for review, the populations of the two nations are expected to be the same size. Looking even further ahead, Uganda’s population is projected to be twice as large as the United Kingdom’s around 2075 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

The underlying reason for the rapid rates of demographic growth among the least developed countries is high fertility rates. While the average number of births for the more developed countries is around 1.7 births per woman, the average for the least developed countries is 4.3 births per woman. Considerably higher fertility rates are observed in many of the least developed African countries, such as Niger with 7.6 births per woman; Somalia, 6.6; Mali, 6.4; Chad, 6.3; Angola, 6.2; and Uganda, 5.9 (Figure 3).

Many countries in various regions of the world have already passed through the demographic transition achieved by both low birth and death rates. At present nearly 80 countries, representing close to half of the world’s population, have fertility rates at or below the replacement level of about two children per woman. In contrast, about 21 countries, accounting for about 9 percent of the world’s population, have fertility rates of five or more births per woman.

Figure 3

Certainly lowering high rates of population growth to manageable levels is not a panacea ensuring sustainable development for the least development countries. However, reducing rapid rates of population growth will contribute substantially to the developmental efforts of those countries by making national goals easier and less costly to achieve.

Slower population growth rates will give those countries with more time to adjust to future population change. This in turn will strengthen their abilities to expand their economies, improve living conditions, educate youth, develop infrastructure and protect environments.

There is not a single issue among the sustainable development goals – including poverty, hunger, housing, education, employment, health, gender equality, human rights and environment – that would not benefit from reducing high rates of population growth. Lower rates of population growth among the least developed countries would also contribute to improving economic and employment prospects, while easing environmental stresses, thus reducing the pressures for young men and women to migrate to other countries to secure a decent standard of living.

Moreover, if fertility rates in the least developed countries were to decline faster than currently projected in the United Nations medium variant projection, the difference in population by the century’s close could be close to a billion people less, 2.2 billion versus 3.2 billion. Such a sizeable demographic difference would contribute to early stabilization of the world’s population.

As has been the case at previous global summits, world leaders will briskly walk into the UN General Assembly and deliver 10 minutes or so of largely forgettable prose. It would indeed be memorable if at least one leader recommended that the international community work together to address high rates of population growth.

In 15 years, the world population will have gained another 1.2 billion people and grow to 8.5 billion people. By then, nearly all of today’s political leaders will have either retired, been removed or passed away. Their replacements will address the UN Development Summit in 2030 – and by then, may find the courage to ask why rapid rates of population growth were repeatedly ignored for so long – and recommend that population growth be included in any future set of international development goals.

Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division

Rights:Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

Comments on this Article

29 September 2015
Thanks to Joseph Chamie and YaleGlobal for sharing this critical information and perspective. We've honored it on the Wall of Fame at Growth Bias Busted along with two suggestions for improvement: http://www.growthbiasbusted.org/wall-of-fame/entry/population-taboo-un-sdg
-Dave Gardner , Wall of Fame
28 September 2015
Chamei is a polarizing and contentious out of touch elitist. Very surpised YGO solicits his stuff, its divisive as hell. Two years ago, he wrote an article saying the US should have the biggest population on the planet if it will only "open its doors" .
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Chamie need look no further than Syria or China with its idiotic one child policy ( still enforced mind you) than to see the future: young, mobile males, tech savvy, clever, and know it all overrunning the planet looking for entitlement. When they don't get that, frustration and resentment will set in, societal instability will be the result, complemented by adherence to extremist groups whose leaders will promise them the moon in order to gain their support. It's an ugly future if we don't address population controls more seriously, and not allow equatorial populations who can't simply afford to,have 5 kids in one family keep propagating. There is a main reason Japan, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, households have such few kids these days:'it costs a fortune bringing up baby responsibly. Maybe Chamie should want help to support a family of 5 Syrian refugees? There's a reason these OECD also don't want a mass of unskilled: they don't integrate! Think Muslim slums in Paris, Chinatowns in Parra (Sydney), Barrios in LA/ El Paso.
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Finally , having worked on the UNDPs MDG 2015, most metrics for the equatorial world were a disaster. The 'new and improved' cafeteria style SDGs will also,be a disaster if politically papered over, also, 169 cafeteria style,'targets' are absurd. Too many goals and targets equals NO goals and targets.
-Michael , Singapore UNDP
24 September 2015
Why is Dr Chamie and other population experts not included in the planning and writing of the agreed upon SDGs.
Yesterday and today, (Sept 23-24Th) the SDGs were the subject of a 2 day international conference at Columbia University's Earth Institute to herald their roll-out. There were over 50 speakers representing UN agencies, academia etc and 90 panelists at parallel sessions. No population scientists were invited as speakers.
Population dynamics was not mentioned in any speech, nor was it the subject of any parallel session. If Population growth is not integrated into all sustainability development goals progress will unfortunately be slow or reversed.
Margaret Perkins
new York City Sierra Club
Population and Environment Committee
-Margaret Perkins , Why is Dr Chamie and other