Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of UNFPA writes about Population in Science Magazine

The cover story of the July 29, 2011 issue of Science Magazine is Population. We learn that in 1900 there were 1.6 billion human beings, 3 billion in 1960, and that the world will reach the benchmark of 7 billion this year. The world is gaining 1 billion people every 13 years. We also learn that from 1950 to the present the total fertility rate has fallen from 5 children per woman to 2.5, a remarkable achievement. But we also learn that the Population Division of the United Nations predicts a human population of slightly more than 9 billion by 2050. I promise you that every one of those human beings will come out of the womb of a woman. I promise you that such a human population will have huge trouble spots or, as the Population section defines them “cluster bombs” (Nigeria and Pakistan are cited) where population will outpace food, water, and other resources. Humanitarian crises will abound.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the new Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) writes the lead editorial. He cites the fact of there being 584 million adolescent girls and that 88 percent of them live in developing countries. He cites the United Nations Adolescent Girls Task Force, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH of which our grassroots movement 34 Million Friends of UNFPA is a member), the Global Strategy on Women’s and Children’s Health and in Africa the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality as evidence of the world’s recognition of the centrality of girls’ and women’s access to education, health and human rights to an acceptable future for people and the planet.

Under the heading “Does Family Planning Bring Down Fertility?” Lant Pritchett, former World Bank economist and professor at Harvard, says that money is better spent on girls’ education than on family planning because the strongest predictors of fertility are income, education, and infant and child survival rates. University of California lecturer Martha Campbell (a personal friend) counters that in some places fertility is so high that building adequate educational infrastructure falls behind and that in addition, being able to space children improves the health of both mothers and babies. I side with her and want to add that most countries could, with a change in budgetary priorities do both. And foreign assistance from the developed world spends minuscule amounts targeting girls. This has to change. Hillary Clinton is working on just that.

One more thing about family planning. When it is offered to women without their husbands being present, their fertility rates fall more than that of women who are accompanied by their husbands. No surprise there!

I would like to recommend one video and one article. The 80 second video put together by Population Action International (www.empty-handed.org) shows real women seeking but not finding access to contraception and the devastating effect it has on their lives. The article “Women’s Health Equals Global Health” is mine and can be found on the home page highlighted in orange at www.34millionfriends.org.

The one thing I regret  in such a “scientific” treatment of population is the dry tone. After all population means real people. But to balance that mild criticism there are “Regional Snapshots” where you see real people’s real lives.

Some parts of this Science Magazine issue are available on line at www.aaas.org.

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  • alexgrieve

    This is great coverage of the population issue! But I find it odd when experts argue that money is better spent on education (for example) than family planning because education is a better predictor of fertility. 

    The thing is, education isn’t a magic shield or cloak of immunity. Research shows pretty conclusively that educated women get pregnant in exactly the same way as illiterate women. The major difference is that educated women are more likely to use family planning — if it is available. The conclusion I draw is that we have to ensure that fp is available to women as well as education, etc. As we know, this is by no means a given in many parts of the world, and contributes among other things to high rates of unsafe abortion. 

    Family planning is a fairly simple idea, and it “does what it says on the tin” (when used according to the label, of course). I wonder why it’s still so unfashionable among some of the experts in our field? I bet none of them would leave home without it!

  • crowepps

    I remember reading that the fundamentalists in Egypt decided that it wasn’t ‘proper’ for girls to go to school and learn to read, and the government tolerated their making schools only for boys.  Then to everyone’s astonishment as an unintended consequence the polio rates started to climb.  Women who can’t read do not know when and where the vaccination clinic will be held because they cannot read the posters.  Men don’t bother to read the posters because vaccinations are ‘baby care’ and men don’t do ‘baby care’.  As I recollect, they solved that one by getting the clerics to preach about how ‘killing diseases’ was part of a father’s duty as a ‘warrior’ to protect his children.


    Girls absolutely have to have basic literacy first, or they won’t get birth control because they won’t be able to read the posters telling them the address of the clinic.