Nairobi population summit: time to start talking about population again

11 November 2019
immediate use

ICPD 25: time to start talking about population again

Campaigners argue sustainable population goals and reproductive health and rights are “inextricably linked”

Representatives from Population Matters will attend the Nairobi Summit on ICPD 25 next week, taking the message that securing sustainable population through rights-based action is essential to development, and raising concerns that failure to recognise this has led to the promised benefits for people and the environment being delivered too little, too late. Population Matters is calling for the full impacts of our still-growing human population (1) to be considered in all such international fora.

The Summit marks the anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, which placed reproductive health and rights, as well as women's empowerment and gender equality at the heart of the development agenda. ICPD set out a Programme of Action intended to secure ambitious goals regarding family planning uptake and child and maternal health (2). Despite some progress, 25 years on, most of its goals have not yet been met:

  • The proportion of women using modern contraceptives has increased by only 6% - from 52% globally to 58% - today
  • Almost half of all pregnancies are estimated to be unintended
  • More than 800 women die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth (3).

The Cairo programme established an ongoing emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) - including the right of all people to freely decide how many children to have and when (a principle endorsed by Population Matters). It also acknowledged the potential problems arising from those choices:

"In the exercise of this right, [prospective parents] should take into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community." (Paragraph 7.3 [4])

The programme was also explicit in its support for the linking of population policies and sustainability, calling on states to:

"promote appropriate policies, including population-related policies, in order to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Principle 6 [4])

These issues do not feature as part of the Nairobi confernece agenda, however (5).

Population growth – driven substantially by large family size – is now recognised by a growing body of scientists as playing a key role in numerous significant environmental problems.

  • Last week, 11,000 scientists signed a Climate Emergency Warning calling for action to address population growth through voluntary means as a key mechanism to fight climate change (6).
  • A major international study in 2017 ranked universal access to female education and family planning as the number one most effective, currently available practical solution for cutting climate emissions, due to their effects in reducing population growth (7).
  • The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in May 2019 identified population growth as a key indirect driver of massive biodiversity loss and called for “transformational change” to address such drivers (8).
  • Research published in the July 2017 Proceedings of US National Academy of Sciences concluded that “the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction [are] human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich.” (9)
  • The World Scientists Warning to Humanity of November 2017, endorsed by more than 20,000 scientists, identified “continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats". The Warning lists 13 policy measures essential to safeguarding our future, including the provision of family planning and girls’ education to reduce fertility (10).


Population Matters director Robin Maynard said:

“Family planning and development policy must be rooted in sexual and reproductive health and rights, within a broader framework focussed on the individual and choice. That’s a given. However, the Cairo programme recognised those choices have wider consequences, but did not act upon that acknowledgement. 25 years on, we’re dealing with the existential threats of climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction. It’s starkly clear that isolating population and family planning policy from environmental policy has been bad for people and planet.

“Population Matters absolutely endorses a renewed commitment to empowerment for women and girls, to SRHR, and to achieving every one of Cairo’s specific goals. It is a tragedy they have not been met, and efforts to achieve them must be redoubled by all responsible governments – especially given the added challenge of the Trump administration’s re-imposition of the retrograde ‘Global Gag’, cutting US Aid to family planning programmes.

“But we must end the siloing of environment and population policy: the two are inextricably linked and synergistic. In particular, we must shake-off the 25-yr-old shibboleth that a commitment to individual rights and empowerment is incompatible with a commitment to securing a sustainable population as an end in itself. That just isn’t so. The Cairo conference unfortunately and unintentionally led to the formalisation of that idea. Nairobi offers the opportunity to act upon its neglected call to recognise the needs of future children.”

Population Matters is calling for:

  • An affirmation by Summit participants of the Cairo principle that family size choices must take into account consequences and responsibilities for the future and the wider community
  • An affirmation that the basis of family planning policy must include inter-generational and environmental justice 
  • An international framework to guide and support national and global policy to secure sustainable population and manage population dynamics
  • Embedding of positive measures to address population through SRHR means in the implementation and work of existing UN frameworks and bodies, such as the SDGs, and in national and international policies intended to protect the environment.  



Alistair Currie, Head of Campaigns and Communications


T: +44 (0)208 123 9170




  1. Since Cairo, the global population has increased by over 2 billion people, from 5.6 billion in 1994 to over 7.7 billion today. The UN’s medium projection sees it reaching 9.7bn by 2050 and 10.9bn by 2100, with only a one-in-four chance of growth ending before the next century. United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects 2019
  2. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
  3. Sources: UNFPA, State of world population 2019; The Lancet Global Health, March 2018; World Health Organization, Maternal mortality
  4. International conference on Population and Development, 1994, Programme of action
  5. Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, Overview  
  6. World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency, (2019) Bioscience
  7. Project drawdown, 2017, Solutions
  8. Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (2019) IPBES Global assessment summary for policymakers
  9. Ceballos et al (2017) Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines  
  10. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (2017) Bioscience         


Population Matters is a UK-based charity working globally to achieve a sustainable future for people and planet.  Our vision is a future in which a stable human population co-exists in harmony with nature and prospers on a healthy planet, to the benefit of all.

We campaign, inform, undertake research and do all we can to encourage an open, fair-minded and constructive debate about population. We promote positive, practical, ethical solutions – encouraging smaller families, inspiring people to consume sustainably, with the aim of enabling everyone to enjoy a decent quality of life whilst respecting and sustaining the natural ecosystems upon which all life on earth depends.

135-137 Station Rd, London E4 6AG

Charity number: 1114109


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