There's good news on the world population front


December 26, 1991|By Steven W. Sinding & Sheldon J. Segal

A CONTRACEPTIVE revolution -- a remarkable success story -- has gone largely unnoticed in the West. It is as impressive as agriculture's green revolution, and perhaps equally important in averting widespread famine in many developing countries.

Third-World women are averaging 3.9 children, and more than 50 percent of the women use some form of contraception, according to estimates of the United Nations. This is a stunning change from the 8 percent who used contraception in 1965 when they were averaging more than six children. Some of the most notable successes have occurred in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Bangladesh.

All this will portend further significant declines in family size if sufficient investments in family planning are made throughout the 1990s. These investments would determine whether the world's population will grow from today's 5.4 billion to a stabilized 10 to 12 billion as early as the year 2045 or 15 to 20 billion by 2100, according to U.N. projections.

The global population's growth rate has declined faster than many experts thought possible in the late 1960s. This decline has come mainly as a result of the voluntary use of public and private family planning services, not through coercive measures some advocates once thought necessary. There are still Third-World states, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic world, where the use of contraception remains low and fertility remains high. But even in several of these -- Kenya, Egypt, Zimbabwe -- the acceptance of contraceptives seems to be growing.

One remarkable feature of this revolution is the near-universality among developing countries in adopting family planning policies and the absence of political risk in doing so. Nearly the whole Third World provides contraceptive services. Another surprising feature has been the low investment needed to reduce birth rates. The World Bank estimates that developing countries spend a total of $3 billion yearly on family planning and related activities such as demographic surveys and public information campaigns. Other nations provide about $600 million of this sum.

The costs are rising yearly. This results partly from the growing number of couples learning to use contraception, many of whom desperately want no more children, and partly from the large number of young people entering child-bearing years. Reaching beyond this easy-to-serve group requires substantial improvements in the quality and coverage of contraceptive services as well as improvements in living standards, including reductions in infant and maternal mortality and better education of women. These improvements will cost more per capita than existing programs.

If the U.N. projection of a world population of 6 billion by 1999 is not to be exceeded, the people in developing countries will require 44 billion condoms, 9 billion cycles of oral contraceptives, 150 million sterilization operations and 310 million intrauterine devices or Norplant insertions. This means the annual cost of family planning programs in the Third World will triple, to about $9 billion; contraceptives alone will cost $400 million to $500 million a year.

Most of these costs will have to be absorbed by the hard-pressed budgets of developing countries. But global assistance will also have to increase substantially. The U.S., which led global population efforts until 1984, is still the principal donor to family planning programs. It can regain full leadership at the U.N. population conference in 1994 by at least doubling its annual contribution and by renewing contributions to the U.N. Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. It should also challenge Japan and Germany to contribute generously.

Failure to support family planning programs adequately for the rest of the 1990s would be measured in the billions of people added before population stabilization is achieved. Such programs could prove to be the most cost-effective investment possible in development assistance.

Steven W. Sinding is director for population sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. Sheldon J. Segal, the former director, is a staff member at the Population Council.

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