29 May 2008 - 31 May 2008

The impact of population trends on the Millennium Development Goals

Chair: HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma

For its 2008 UN-related issue, Ditchley chose to link current performance on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with population growth trends.  We had noticed – at about the same time that the House of Commons All Party group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health had produced its excellent January 2007 report – that international organisations and development policy-makers seemed reluctant to factor in population growth to the achievement of the MDGs or to the prospects for sustainable development in the longer term.  Participants at this conference expressed their enthusiasm for a debate which at last linked the two.

MDGs Performance

Our discussion did not go into great depth on MDGs performance so far.  The UN and other bodies have done this in detail;  and the United Nations will be focussing on the issue in New York in September, at roughly the half-way point between 2000 and 2015.  We agreed that the MDGs had succeeded in establishing much greater international cohesion on the strategic objectives for development than had previously existed, drawing attention particularly to the suffering of the worst-off communities in the developing world.  But progress, particularly in Africa, was slow;  many of the targets were unlikely to be achieved unless new resources and fresh energy were injected;  and the partnership which the eighth MDG called for, and which was the essential component for MDGs achievement across the board, was not really in evidence. 

Nevertheless it was useful to be reminded – and we had in former Secretary-General Kofi Annan the principal architect of the initiative at the table – that the UN had shifted the debate on development towards objectives and indicators which were universally intelligible.   With an agreed common framework, it was now everyone’s business.   It was inevitable that different reactions would emerge in different countries, with both donors and recipients responding in a variety of ways.  But the world’s overall capacity to address the worst development problems had been expanded and a number of useful lessons had been learnt.  Participants also agreed that the MDGs could not be regarded as a development panacea.  It was quite clear that they had their limitations.  Apart from anything else, trustworthy information on performance and accurate reporting by governments were hard to find.  It was not even possible to be clear why certain developing communities were doing better than others.  There seemed to be no common factors linking developing countries that had made progress, except perhaps a more determined approach to achieving the MDGs and the setting of clear national goals related to them.  This in itself was a strong indication that we should keep going. 

Room for improvement?

Participants were reluctant to get into a debate on where the responsibility lay for a less than impressive performance so far.  Overseas development assistance funding was not growing fast enough in donor countries:  we were in no doubt about that.  The European Union was making a considerable effort to move towards 0.7% of GDP, but still moving too slowly.  The United States was way behind.  Yet neither had developing world governments consistently taken advantage of the opportunity which the MDGs offered.  The UN had made it clear at the beginning that all member states had to take a share of the responsibility for making the targets work.  In the event some had responded well and others had not.  The UN itself was not in a position to take on accountability for implementation, even if it could remain a pressing advocate.  The fact was that, beneath the simplicity of the overall message of the MDGs, meeting the eight categories of objectives was an immensely complex matter, needing resources, determination and international cooperation in equally large amounts.  For all the activity and commitment demonstrated, there was still a long way to go.

The population factor

We realised that bringing population growth trends into this examination of the MDGs was a further complicating factor.  But the conference was clear that they could not and should not be hidden.  Even if the population growth timescale made it difficult to correlate the projections with MDG performance, action on sensible population targets could still have an early effect on maternal and infant health and on primary education targets. 

Yet we went deeper into the population issue than that;  and this was where the real value of the conference began to emerge.  There was a hard debate about whether economic growth on its own formed the most sensible general target, because it not  only raised living standards but also encouraged, as the history of economic development appeared to show, gradually lower population growth rates.  As people began to generate more confidence in health and other social systems, they began to perceive that there was less need to insure with high numbers of children.  The other side of the argument, however, was put with equal force.  Even with successful economic growth, there were bound to be losers;  and, in the developing world, their numbers could be quite high.  Economic growth did not dispense distributional justice.  It was also clear that economic growth took time and could never be universal.  Countries afflicted by conflict, poor governance or lack of resources would still lag far behind.  These were the most likely areas for population growth rates to remain high.  The projection of population trends in a country like Ethiopia, for instance, were a remarkable demonstration of this.  Current projections indicated that the population of Sub-Saharan Africa would increase by 225% by 2050, whereas in poor countries in other regions the growth rate was more likely to be around 30%.  There was little prospect of adequate economic growth surprising us by proving these expectations wrong. 

Population targets

The conference was fortunate in having considerable expertise at the table to explain how population targets, if set with determination, could be achieved.  While China was the supreme example, there were also interesting and varied lessons to be learnt from the experiences of Iran, the Republic of Korea and Kenya.  Real top-down determination at the national level could make a difference in a remarkably short period of time.  Yet participants agreed that this kind of top-down lead could not easily come from donor countries themselves.  The image of the richer world seeking “population control” in the poorer world could only be counter-productive. 

This brought us to the cardinal point that national governments, in countries where population growth was a strong factor, had to make their own decisions on targets.  We  recognised that there were cultural, religious and social constraints in a wide number of communities which could make a change in average family size and the use of family planning techniques very hard to promote.  But the advantages could be shown to affect not just economic and social conditions in the areas covered by the MDGs, but the health of local, national and regional communities in wider ways as well.  The availability of water and energy was undoubtedly affected by population numbers.  So was the capacity of a region to address climate change and carbon emissions.  The quality of governance and the security of a territory could also be linked in.  Our debate indicated, perhaps more than most of us were expecting, that taking population factors into account, and making family planning instruments more widely available to those who might wish to use them, could be a really effective approach to accelerating progress in the developing world.  Even where there were cultural taboos, action was possible if targets were set with determination and if local communities, down to individual families and the women at their centre, could be given choice. 

Policy choices

We were left with the conclusion, therefore, that there were ways of making progress, both on the MDGs and on population trends, which had not yet been fully tried in determined and cooperative policy-making.  On the MDGs, there were three areas in particular which deserved emphasis: 

  • Data availability and reporting accuracy could both be improved.  The UN’s Population Division was trying hard, but national governments could be encouraged to make a much greater effort to return accurate statistics, for instance on maternal mortality and other health trends.  Assistance could be given to governments to increase their data collecting capacity;  figures should be scrutinised more carefully at the international level;  and remaining areas of data uncertainty should be taken into account.
  • The effectiveness of overseas development assistance policies needed to be reviewed.  Specific new ideas (such as bednets in malaria areas) could be highly useful.  But the direction of larger funding programmes might need to be re-thought, as too high a proportion of aid was going into currency reserves and debt relief.  Health and education should be particular areas of focus.
  • Implementation and delivery mechanisms needed to be overhauled.  There was still insufficient coherence within the UN system and between donor sources.  Lessons should be learned from those developing countries which had learnt how to respond effectively to donor approaches.  A much greater effort was needed to encourage developing world capitals to set the right targets and to coordinate the aid on offer to meet them. 

Action on population

On the population, our principal message was that advocacy of the advantages of having national governments set population targets should be much more widely pursued.  In addition:

  • Much more care was needed in distinguishing family planning instruments from programmes to control HIV/AIDS.  While valuable in its own right, the latter had probably taken momentum away from family planning initiatives.  Condoms had been left as the main answer in both areas, which was not a sufficient response for family planning.
  • Developing countries should be offered projects to illustrate the benefits of population stabilisation.  The achievability of targets needed to be illustrated.  With family planning at present being largely donor-driven, a more determined pull was needed at the recipient end.
  • The complex factors involved in urban growth could be brought into this equation.  The rapidly increasing size of many developing world cities could be used to draw attention to the options available.
  • Above all, women in local communities should be made much more widely aware of the choices they had, with family planning advice and instruments themselves being made more broadly available.

Our Chairman reminded us at the end that, of the 1.8 billion citizens currently making up the populations of Commonwealth countries, 750 million lived below the level of $1 a day.  Of these, half were under 25 years old, a quarter under 5.  Was there no way we could create a world fitter for those children, and make those children fitter for the world?  The MDGs could be seen as a turning point, if we achieved them.  But action on population could also add tremendous value.  Of course the progress we made would always be lumpy, however successful we were in accelerating the achievement of the MDGs.  But there was a real opportunity to work together on these issues to improve the results. 

We were left with this core argument:  

–           achievement  of the MDGs will fall short in certain respects, especially if the international community does not renew its determination to meet them;

–           the MDGs have helped to bring together coherent action on development issues, but the fact of their existence has introduced an element of complacency, particularly in the developed world;

–           they will need to be renewed, revised and re-shaped for the post-2015 period anyway;

–           population growth trends will create much greater problems on a longer timescale, but population action over the next seven years could still help the achievement of some of the MDGs;

–           population stabilisation could bring advantages across a much wider area than the eight MDG categories, including energy use, water resources, climate change, governance and security issues; 

–           Population targets, if the national will is there, can be met surprisingly quickly; 

–           There therefore needs to be a much wider debate about the linkage between MDGs and population trends, with the case being made both in the developed and the developing worlds.  The input of the private sector, and particularly the most capable NGOs, should also be factored in.

We recognised that we had been ambitious in this discussion.  But the realisation, within a group of remarkably varied and deep expertise, that there were new things that could be done was palpable.  We were fortunate in having a Chairman who possessed both a huge experience on these issues and a strong determination to make a difference in his new capacity.  There were many participants at the end who were resolved to try again to make a difference.  Ditchley will be returning to this general area when we address the effectiveness of overseas development assistance in mid-2009.  If by then there are indications that there is fresh momentum behind the MDGs, in the second half of their shelf life, it will give new point to that discussion.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma 
Indian Foreign Service (1965-);  Commonwealth Secretary-General (2008-).  Formerly:  High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom (2005 08).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Janice Charette

Deputy Minister, Human Resources and Social Development Canada, Quebec (2006-).  Formerly:  Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2004-06).
Dr Roy Culpeper 
The North-South Institute, Ottawa (1986-):  President and CEO (1995-);  Vice President and Coordinator of Research (1986-95).

Mr Sameh Aboul-Enein

Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;  Minister Plenipotentiary/Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Egypt to the United Kingdom (2007-).  Formerly:  Director, United Nations Affairs Department (2007).

Mr Paul Culley

Director for Development and Trade, EU Council of Ministers Secretariat.

HE Mr Kofi Annan GCMG

Chair, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (2007-);  Chair, Africa Progress Panel;  Member, Board of Directors, UN Foundation (2007-);  Member, Foundation Board, World Economic Forum;  President, Global Humanitarian Forum.  Formerly:  Secretary-General, United Nations (1997-2006).  Recipient, Nobel Prize for Peace, jointly with UN (2001).

Dr Eddy Lee

Director, International Policy Group, International Institute for Labour Studies, International Labour Organisation, Geneva.

Ambassador Dr Eunice Brookman-Amissah MD FRCOG

Vice-President for Africa, Ipas.  Formerly:  Minister of Health, Ghana (1995-98);  Ambassador of Ghana to the Kingdom of the Netherland (1998-2001).

Professor Asit Biswas

President, Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico;  Advisor to 18 governments and six heads of UN agencies.  Formerly:  President, International Water Resources Association (1988 91).

Ms Ayoola Obe

Legal Practitioner, Lagos;  Chair, Conseil d’Administration, Goree Institute (Senegal).  Formerly:  Chair, Steering Committee, World Movement for Democracy;  President, Civil Liberties Organisation (Nigeria).

Hon Justice Edward Torgbor

Chartered Arbitrator and Mediator, Kenya;  Visiting Professor of Mercantile Law, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Dr Cecilia Tortajada

President, International Water Resources Association (2007-);  Scientific Director, International Centre on Water, Zaragoza, Spain (2006-);  Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew school for Public Policy, Singapore;  Vice President, Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico (1998-).

Mrs Christine Magistretti-Naville

Founding Member (1999) and Chair of the Board, International Foundation for Population and Development, Lausanne (2004-).

Mr Bruce Montador

Executive Director for Canada, African Development Bank, Tunisia (2007-).  Formerly:  Vice-President of Multilateral Programs Branch, Canadian International Development Agency (2003 07).

Mr Sam Daws

Executive Director, UN Association of the UK (2004-);  Director, 3D Associates, Geneva and Oxford (1990 ).  Formerly:  First Officer, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, New York (2000-03).
Lord Hannay of Chiswick GCMG CH
Chairman, The UN Association of the UK (2006-);  Independent Member, House of Lords.  Formerly:  Member, EU Select Committee, House of Lords (2002-06);  Member, UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats and Challenges (2003);  HM Diplomatic Service (1959-95).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Paul de Guchteneire

Director, International Journal on Multicultural Societies;  Head, International Migration Programme of UNESCO.

Dr Mari Simonen

Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations;  Deputy Executive Director (External Relations, UN Affairs and Management) and Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Population Fund, New York.

Professor John Cleland

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (1988-);  Professor of Medical Demography (1993-).  Formerly:  Head, Centre for Population Studies (1996-99).
Professor Sir Gordon Conway FRS
Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for International Development (2005-);  Professor, International Development, Imperial College, London.
Mr Benny Dembitzer
Director, Ethical Events Limited, Global Development Forum, Global Development Conference;  Member, Council, Africa Centre of London (1992-).
Ms Susan Holloway
Deputy Chief Economist, Department for International Development, London.
Ms Bronwen Maddox
Chief Foreign Commentator, The Times (2006-).  Formerly:  The Times:  Foreign Editor (1999-2006).  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Lord Malloch-Brown KCMG
Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, London (2007-).  Formerly:  Vice Chairman, Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Network, New York (2007);  UN Deputy Secretary-General (2006);  Chef de Cabinet to UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan (2005);  Administrator, UN Development Programme (1999-2005).
Mrs Christine McCafferty MP
Member of Parliament, Labour, Calder Valley (1997-);  Chair, UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (1999-).
Mr Richard Ottaway MP
Member of Parliament, Conservative, Croydon South (1997-);  Member, Conservative Party Board (2006-);  Member, UK Intelligence and Security Committee;  Vice Chairman, All Party Parliamentary Olympic Group.
Ms Lyn Thomas
International Planned Parenthood Federation (1980-):  Deputy Director-General (2002-);  Chief Operations Officer.
Mr Nick Thorne CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1965-).  Formerly:  Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the Office of the United Nations and other International Organisations, Geneva.
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell
Life Peer (2005-);  Chair, Climate Change Committee;  Chairman:  Economic and Social Research Council;  Overseas Development Institute;  Non-Executive Director, Standard Chartered plc, United Business Media plc, and Paternoster Limited;  Visiting Professor, London School of Economics and CASS Business School, City of London.
Sir John Vereker KCB
Member, Board of Directors, XL Capital Limited.  Formerly:  Governor of Bermuda (2002-07);  Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development (1994-2002).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Ngaire Woods
Professor, International Political Economy, University College, Oxford;  Director, Global Economic Governance Programme, University of Oxford.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Charles Ukeje PhD

Reader, International Relations, Department of International Development, University of Oxford;  Lecturer (on sabbatical), African Politics and Development, University of Oxford.

Dr Hania Zlotnik

Population Division, United Nations (1982-):  Director, Chief, Population Estimates and Projections Section;  Chief, Mortality and Migration Section.

Mr Manal Omar

Regional Program Manager for the Middle East, Oxfam (2006-).  Formerly:  Regional Coordinator, Women for Women International, working on Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, Baghdad (2004-05).
Ms Stella Thomas
Founder and Executive Director, Global Water Fund.  Founder, Global Water Fund Foundation.

Dr Martha Campbell

Lecturer, Global Health, University of California, Berkeley;  President and Founder, Venture Strategies for Health and Development.
Ms Amy Coen
Chief Executive Officer and President, Population Action International, Washington DC.
Dr George Rupp
President and CEO, International Rescue Committee.  Formerly:  President, Columbia University (1993 2002).

Dr John Bongaarts

Population Council, New York (1973-);  Vice-President and Distinguished Scholar (2007-).

Ms Clare Lockhart

Director, Institute for State Effectiveness (2006-).  Formerly:  Adviser to NATO ISAF (2006-07);  Adviser to Government of Afghanistan and UN adviser to the Bonn Process (2001-05).
Professor Malcolm Potts
Bixby Professor, Population and Family Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Dr John Martin MB MSc FFPH

Adviser, Office of the Director General, World Health Organization.  Formerly:  Director, WHO Office at the EU (2002-08).