On October 31, somewhere—perhaps in a Philippine province, a Kenyan slum, or a Manhattan hospital—a mother will give birth to the world’s seven-billionth child. To mark the occasion, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has established the day as “7 Billion Day” and launched a campaign titled “7 Billion Actions” to raise awareness.
Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, recently commented on the occasion, warning that “it is very important for the future of humanity that the young people of today have on average fewer children than their parents did.” While family planning has typically been the go-to solution for “overpopulation” efforts, Ms. Zlotnik’s colleague and executive director of the UNFPA, Babatunde Osotimehin, recently has shifted the focus elsewhere. At an appearance earlier this month at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Mr. Osotimehin noted that “problems stemming from population growth are actually issues of consumption, distribution, and equity, not necessarily intrinsic to the number of people alone.”
Concern about overpopulation dates back to Thomas Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, in which Malthus wrote that people were reproducing more quickly than the food supply was increasing. Malthus advised that “all the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.” By 1890, he predicted, the world would run out of food, and thus the end of the human race would soon follow.
In 1968, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich followed the same line of reasoning and forecast widespread famines in his bestseller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich warned of “the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the century.” A year later, in 1969, the United Nations Population Fund was founded to rectify this problem. During this same period, the United States doubled its spending on research and development for contraceptive methods and, with concerns about the balance of world power on its mind, joined the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation in convincing Asian countries that fewer people would lead to greater wealth. Even Disney joined the fray by producing the cartoon film Family Planning.
The 1974 International Conference on Population held in Bucharest was intended to put all population fears at bay, with Western countries instructing the third world on how best to solve their problems. Western leaders, however, were surprised when they were met with opposition from their third-world counterparts, who demanded that “development is the best form of contraception”—not state-imposed population-control measures. Some Western leaders then, in the 1984 International Conference on Population in Mexico City and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, pushed to have abortion recognized as an international human right and as a legitimate means of family planning; their efforts were strongly resisted by leaders from the Muslim community and Latin America, and ultimately failed.
Almost forty years have passed since the first 1974 conference on population and development. Since then, two types of population policies have been developed: those that are person-centered and those that promote population control. The different results of these two options stand in stark contrast to each other. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government of Hong Kong declared that the country was at full capacity, without room for more children. Housing was in disrepair and seemingly occupied all available city space. Hong Kong also had been written off by many as a place of irreversible poverty due to the lack of education, contaminated water and food, and generally unsanitary conditions. Rather than adopt population-control policies, the government decided to invest in its banking and legal structures and the country’s infrastructure. Since the government provided the framework, human capital was allowed to flourish. While the government spent its time protecting basic human rights and promoting anti-corruption policies, Hong Kong’s citizens transformed themselves into burgeoning entrepreneurs and created what has been referred to as “the largest economic boom in history.” Today, Hong Kong has a population of over seven million people—five times higher than what the government declared to be capacity in the 1950s.
Its nearby neighbor Singapore provides a different example. During the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore implemented a two-child policy, with national campaign slogans encouraging citizens to “Stop at Two” because “Two is Enough.” Other methods, such as offering top spots in the most prestigious primary schools to children whose parents had been sterilized before the age of forty, were common tactics used to discourage childbearing. While the country did experience temporary economic success, it has become unsustainable. Today, the country of 3.2 million people is comprised of 1.68 million foreign workers due to the shortage in the labor force and an aging population. In an effort to correct decades of poor policy, the country is now aggressively pursuing a pro-fertility policy.
This month, as world population reaches seven billion, countries and international agencies alike could benefit from a review of the last forty years. There never has been a direct link between overpopulation and poverty, and in many places—such as Japan and India—larger populations have been the source of much economic growth. Between the years of 1971 and 2011, India’s population doubled, while its economy grew faster, and it now boasts an expected new working-age population for 2010–2020 of 123 million. This number is five times that of China, which suffers from a graying workforce thanks to its one-child policy, which began in 1978.
The misguided focus on population control prevents policymakers from achieving real goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that emphasize education, empowering women, and maternal health (currently the goal that is least fulfilled). The fact that such enormous efforts have been made to implement population control programs while necessary programs such as maternal health remain neglected is telling. Harvard economist Lant Pritchett has noted that the most important policies are those that “improve objective conditions for women—raising their income, increasing their education, encouraging empowerment.” Pritchett is not alone in making this claim. In fact, in its own publication “Giving Birth Should Not Be a Matter of Life and Death,” the UNFPA admits that while “access to voluntary family planning could reduce maternal deaths by as much as twenty percent, … ensuring skilled attendance at all births, backed by emergency obstetric care when needed, would reduce maternal deaths by about 75 per cent.” Despite this clear recognition of the resource allocations needed to save women’s lives, UNFPA continues to promote family planning as its favorite panacea for social development. It seems obvious that real success can be had in funding birth attendants for mothers. Regrettably, UN funding and foreign aid initiatives have chosen to prioritize family planning measures and population control, neglecting the fact that investing in healthy mothers leads to healthy children and a healthy and prosperous citizenry.
Earlier this month, on October 3, the National Marriage Project and the Social Trends Institute released a study titled The Sustainable Demographic Dividend: What Do Marriage and Fertility Have to Do with the Economy? The report found that “in more than seventy-five countries around the globe, fertility is well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per women, which is needed to sustain the workforce at its current levels.” Their proposed solution? Maintain high enough fertility to avoid a diminishing workforce and aging population, and invest in healthy, intact families that can contribute as citizens, employers, and consumers.
The lesson is straightforward: Economic and national prosperity rises when individuals and families are educated and engaged in cycles of productivity. Once this engagement with productivity has taken place, additional human resources enable greater economic development. Attempting to achieve prosperity or economic growth by limiting the population decreases possible human resources, and does nothing to produce the desired outcome, which requires an investment in the human person—not fewer people.
Along the road to development, these key economic principles seem to have been forgotten. After almost forty years of failed population-control programs, it is time to learn from past mistakes and establish a new course going forward. Rather than lament a population of seven billion, let us instead welcome someone who could be the next Einstein, Mozart, or Steve Jobs—or just a future mother or father who will face new challenges and exhibit new forms of ingenuity and creativity to overcome them. Meanwhile, let us begin now by enacting the proper policies and the right conditions for him or her to build on.
Welcome, baby seven billion. We are glad to have you.
Christopher White is the International Director of Operations for the World Youth Alliance, an NGO headquartered in New York City that works to promote human dignity in policy and culture.