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OP ED: CHALLENGING OUR ASSUMPTIONS; Depopulation -- myth or reality?

Date : Monday, August 15, 2005

Source : San Francisco Chronicle (USA)
Author : Sara Seims

A couple of centuries ago, economist Thomas Malthus warned that world population (then at about 1 billion people) would rapidly overtake the food supply, leading to global famine. Today, we're at 6.4 billion people and it hasn't happened yet. Malthus fell into the trap of discounting human ingenuity and adaptability.

More recently, predictions of a "population bomb" based on trends of the 1960s didn't happen, either. Increased use of contraception enabled much -- though not all -- of the world to bring down growth rates. Now, however, rather than celebrating this initial success, we're hearing emotional warnings about global depopulation: a baby shortage, the "burden of aging societies," dwindling markets for goods and a "loss of creative edge." Pundits conjure visions of empty playgrounds, a shrinking workforce resentful at shouldering pensions for multitudes of seniors; and ethnic tensions from an influx of immigrants who look very different and come from alien cultures.

These alarming scenarios are being used to undermine support for family-planning programs around the world. This is a mistake. Like Malthus, these doomsayers ignore the human capacity to adapt and survive. But far more tragically, they overlook the "demographic divide" between rich and poor countries.

This divide is real and growing. The populations of most developed countries, not including immigration, are stable or even shrinking, and all are aging. But this is much less than half the picture. Of the 136 million children born each year, more than 122 million arrive in developing countries, according to 2004 data from the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. Women in many sub-Saharan countries are still having four to six children each, enough to double their populations every 25 to 30 years. This statistic, derived from the U.N.'s 2004 World Population Prospects, has changed little since the 1960s. In other poor countries, women are having fewer children than their mothers did, but still far more than the "replacement" level of 2.1 each, and downward trends have stalled.

For these people, and not just in Africa, reality is desperate poverty, teeming slums without sanitation or clean water, and children's playgrounds that are garbage dumps and open sewers, not swing-sets. More than 1 billion young people -- most of them in poor countries -- are now entering their reproductive years. Their childbearing decisions will shape the future for all of us, so they need family-planning information and services right now if they are to make responsible choices in their own best interests.

But this need is not being met. According to the World Health Organization, at least 120 million women say they would space or limit their children but lack access to family-planning options that wealthy nations take for granted. The result: Too many pregnancies are unwanted and high risk, not supported by even basic health care. Many end in gruesome and dangerous abortions. Every minute of every day, a woman dies of a pregnancy-related complication, WHO data show. These 585,000 deaths a year are almost all preventable. Family planning, far from being a solution to yesterday's problem, is more urgent now than ever on the poor side of the demographic divide.

But what about the rich side? Polls show that many European families want more children than they now have. But women also cite the difficulty of combining parenthood with careers, the shortage of attractive and affordable housing and reluctance to marry where traditional child-care patterns and women's roles persist, as in Italy and Japan. Farsighted governments and employers are trying to make it easier for women to balance careers with child-rearing: bonuses for each child, paid parental leave, tax breaks and subsidized child-care facilities. Countries such as Sweden, Italy and Chile have also made major changes in their pension programs to cope with aging populations, while other nations are debating new options. While not every idea will prove effective, necessity is forcing change. As economist Herbert Stein once said, "When something can't go on any longer, it won't go on any longer."

No government or donor country should ever force individuals to have more or fewer children, but it is their legitimate role to create, monitor and tune policies that align what's good for individual women and families with what's good for their societies. Obviously, these policies must differ between rich and poor countries. And if they are successful, over time and thanks to human ingenuity and adaptability, they will narrow the demographic divide. A worldwide one-size-fits-all approach that dismisses family planning is not only wrong-headed and dangerous, it's downright cruel.

Sara Seims, Ph.D., directs the population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (www.hewlett.org/Programs/Population/) in Menlo Park.

<< San Francisco Chronicle -- 8/15/05 >>

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