Live from Rio+20, Day Four: “Plenary Floor, Demographic Dividend and the Youth Bulge”


See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

June 21, 2012, From RioIt’s the final day of Rio+20 and last minute deliberations in the UN plenary are at a high-pitch – Sweden and Denmark have made strong statements in favor of reproductive rights, and I understand US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling for support of women’s empowerment, reproductive health and rights on the floor as we speak.  We will follow this closely today as the meeting comes to what promises to be a dramatic close tonight.  

While the last hours of negotiations unfold, we begin to look forward.  Fitting then that I attended an important side-event yesterday about future demographic trends and how to turn them into dividends rather losses. For that I headed over to the US Country tent for a high-level discussion on “Making Population Matter: The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development”.  

Speakers included:

  • Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Susan Reichle, Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning 
  • Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu, Executive Director, African Institute for Development Policy
  • Cassio M. Turra, Associate Professor of Demography, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
  • Carmen Barroso, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region 
  • Peggy Clark (moderator), Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Health and Development, Aspen Institute

This topic is important in light of Rio+20 because of the integrated nature of natural resource and ecosystem management and healthy functioning, and the human and economic dimensions.  The more I work on these issues the more profoundly I understand their inter-connected nature, how the issues are not compartmentalized or silo-ed but a mix of human, economic, and environmental considerations. They play out that way in our lives, and must be addressed in that manner by our governments nationally and internationally, as in Rio+20.

The side-event was framed around “whether or not population matters to sustainable development.”  The panelists adeptly proved with research data and analysis that it does. Youth figured large in the panel’s comments because of its global and national significance:  we have the largest youth demographic ever in the history of the world, and most developing nations have a “youth bulge.” This can be seen as a challenge, or opportunity, particularly if the focus is on providing development programs for child survival, family planning, reproductive health, and education. The importance of women’s empowerment was also central.  But it’s not a given, it’s an opportunity only if we pay attention to these issues to increase the benefits of the “demographic dividend.”

The demographic dividend can seem complicated but boils down to the fact that changes in the overall age structure of a population can result in an increase of economic opportunity for a nation and region – it is described in more detail here.

USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg describes the demographic dividend as “an opportunity that arises when a country transitions from high to low rates of fertility and child and infant mortality, creating a generation that is significantly larger than the generations immediately preceding and following it. As they enter working age, they have the potential to contribute to productive economic activities and invest savings at relatively high rates, thus spurring heightened economic growth.

He said that maximizing the dividend doesn’t just happen, and requires social and economic policies that reinforce inclusion, equity, and opportunity across the entire population. In order to reap a potential demographic dividend, countries must accelerate reductions in child mortality, increase access to family planning, ensure strong education, especially of girls and women, adequately prepare the workforce and spur entrepreneurship, and institute sound fiscal and labor policies to create the conditions for working-age citizens to be most productive.”

In Brazil, Carmen Barroso said there has been rapid fertility decline in recent decades, due to a combination of factors.  These included an increase in urbanization (results in fewer children due to increased costs of raising them and lack of extended family in cities), empowerment of women, expansion of their school system (in particular for girls), and increase of women in the job force.  Religious leaders also turned a blind eye to family planning which helped, too.

Dr. Zulu talked about Africa’s unique role in maximizing the demographic dividend, particularly as they have the youth bulge and are the only continent projected to continue especially rapid rates of high population growth over the long term.  He also discussed the just-released Royal Society’s People and Planet report, with a poignant message in the Rio+20 context.  It says decreasing high levels of resource consumption by the most consuming nations, increasing the poorest population’s ability to consume resources so they may increase their quality of life, and managing rapid population growth rates were the three most important things to provide a balance between population pressures and the planet’s environment. 

In light of Rio+20 and the human population and demographic factors (including the dividend),  making economic and policy investments in education, women’s and girls’ empowerment, family planning, child survival and using an integrated approach to these issues were key messages from the panel. Focusing on the most vulnerable and poorest of the population was also a priority.

As USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg put it, “The youth bulge are the young people we didn’t’ reach, the demographic dividend will be the ones we reached.”  This is an opportunity worth taking.

Tomorrow is the last in the series where I will take stock of Rio+20 and ask: where do we go from here?  For me that’s not a very difficult question to answer as we move directly to the next prime opportunities to address these issues at the global scale, through the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and the UN MDG process this fall.  

And, for additional background information, see the new fact sheet on “Women’s Empowerment and Family Planning: Rio+20, UK Family Planning Summit, MDGs and Beyond”

Stay tuned…

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