Despite enormous gains in the wellbeing and economic circumstances of hundreds of millions of people, 10% of the world's population still live on less than $2 a day. High population growth traps individuals, communities and even entire countries in poverty. Achieving sustainable population levels, locally and globally, helps people achieve the dignity and standard of living we all deserve.
“ We cannot confront the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental destruction unless we address issues of population and reproductive health.”
– Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UN Under-Secretary-General 2000-2010
While billions enjoy an affluent style, more than a tenth of the world’s population live in extreme poverty today. Poverty is not a consequence of limited global resources, but political and economic injustice. However, the poorest people are almost always at greatest risk from environmental damage, climate change and competition for resources. The effects of unsustainable population hit the poorest first, and hardest.
Family size and poverty
The world's poorest countries tend to have the largest family sizes and fertility rates. When people have no economic security and cannot rely on their government and a social safety net, they often have children to ensure they will be looked after when they are older. Where child mortality is high, there is an even greater impetus to have more children. Those circumstances can lead in turn to a culture which values high family size.
This understandable human impulse can contribute to a vicious cycle. Poor families with large numbers of dependent children may perceive the need to take children out of education early, or marry off their daughers young. They will also often live in deprived communities where access to modern family planning is limited. All these factors combine to keep family sizes high, perpetuating the cycle.
"My statement that ‘development is the best contraceptive’ became widely known and oft quoted. 20 years later I am inclined to reverse this, and my position now is that ‘contraception is the best development’.”
– Karan Singh, Indian politician
What applies to families, applies also to nations. In poorer countries, providing jobs, infrastructure, health services and education to a constantly growing population can be an impossible task. In the worst cases, even food can be impossible to supply. In countries with very high population growth, huge numbers of dependent children in comparison to economically productive adults create a further burden. In sub-Saharan Africa, the median age of the entire population is just 19 years old. In Niger, the country with the world's highest fertility rate, the median age is just 15.3 years.
“The high population is exerting a lot of pressure on our economy. As a country we have made tremendous gains over the years but the impact is not reflected on our economy because the gains have been dissipated by population growth”
– Goodall Gondwe, minister of Finance, Malawi, 2017
In contrast, countries which have been successful in bringing down their fertility rates, have moved out of poverty more quickly.
Local environmental destruction
While people living in poverty make a minuscule impact on global environmental problems such as climate change, they can have a devastating impact on their local environment. Soils may be eroded in an attempt to increase crop yields, fish stocks decimated to provide food and local forests razed for timber and firewood. These actions, along with increasing conflict between humans and wildlife and hunting of animals for food can have a huge impact on biodiversity.
Environmental damage can have wider impacts. For instance, in places where there is no water supply and no refuse collection, people are obliged to use and discard plastic packaging or bottles, sometimes in waterways, contributing to plastic pollution in the oceans. The perception that poverty equates to a low environmental footprint does not hold true in many circumstances.
The recipe for ending population growth is positive and simple:
- Lift people out of poverty
- Provide universal access to modern family planning
- Empower women
- Encourage and incentivise smaller families
There are direct relationships between economic development, access to education and reductions in fertility rates. It is essential that we do all we can to end global poverty and secure universal, high quality education for all children and young people. Those cannot be effective, however, without high quality, modern family planning - and the desire to use it. More than 200m women have an unmet need for modern contraception - meaning that they don't want to get pregnant but are not using contraception. This can be becaue they do not have access to it, because their circumstances prevent them from using it or because, as is often the case, they have concerns about side-effects or how to use it effectively. Beyond that, in some places there is still a cultural preference for larger families.
If all of these methods are used in combination, they are most effective, and have secured dramatic reductions in fertility rates in many countries.
Population and women's empowerment in Kenya
Family planning in rural Africa
Defend family planning aid
Foreign aid, fair trade and global justice are all vital tools in helping people escape poverty and bringing population growth to an end. Obstacles to the use of modern family planning must be overcome, whether those are logistical, ideological or personal. The empowerment of women and girls is essential.
Right now, family planning programmes in many of the world's poorest countries are losing funding because of changes in US foreign aid policy. Women and children are suffering the effects right now, and their communities will struggle to escape poverty.
Join the campaign to defend family planning.