20 September 1990 - 22 September 1990

The Economic, Social, Political and Environmental Implications of Population Growth in the Developing World

Chair: Sir Peter Marshall KCMG

The first conference in our new conference year, held in the Lecture Theatre, because the Library is still in the hands of the decorators, was essentially a follow-up to an earlier conference in November 1987, when we addressed demographic problems as they manifest themselves in the developed and developing worlds respectively. The former will be the subject of a further conference in September 1991: on this occasion we considered the issues that a rise in the developing world where, even if fertility rates could be dramatically and immediately reduced, such is the momentum already generated that in many poor countries populations will double in the next 30 years, and in several cases in an even shorter period.

The conference was perhaps too homogeneous. We had no participant prepared to argue with conviction that population growth at whatever level was to be welcomed or that family planning was not a desirable objective on grounds both of freedom of choice and quality of life, though all recognised that the case was not universally accepted and required care and courage if it was to be put over successfully.

As the title shows we attempted in the discussions to link demography and the environment, areas which have often been viewed separately, a situation which, to the regret of all participants, seems likely to be perpetuated in the planned 1992 UN Conference on Development and the Environment unless the organisers can be persuaded to change their minds.

Nevertheless, while all agreed that it was essential to view demographic and environmental problems as linked, participants found difficulty in establishing a firm scientific basis for such a link, beyond intuition and common sense. This, it was suggested, might pose a dilemma for the advocates of family planning: on the one hand, environmental concerns could be seen as “a carrier pigeon” to purvey the family planning message in a way that might be more acceptable in the developing world, but there was a danger both that the scientific basis for the link might be called in question and so undermine the credibility of the message, and that those advocating family planning inter alia on environmental grounds might be accused of dishonesty, especially if they were seen to be using different arguments to different audiences. Just as in the case of the environment, it was necessary to be able to rebut the charge that the developed, having become rich through what were now seen as environmentally damaging processes, were now trying to prevent the developing from achieving prosperity in their turn through such processes, so it was necessary to present the arguments for improved family planning so that the policy could be accepted as in the interest of the developing countries and their populations and not seen merely as an attempt on the part of the developed, in their own interest, to stop the growth of third world populations, with the risks to their own comfort through calls on their purses, migration, etc. in mind.

The common thread it was suggested in all this was poverty. Economic development would increase prosperity, and properly managed and funded, would preserve the environment; but the benefit would not, at least in the short-term, be equally distributed (the Kuznets curve): if population continued to grow, the aggregate increase in GNP would not be reflected in an equivalent advance in individual prosperity, and at a certain level might even mean a reduction, which in turn would drive people into wasteful and environmentally damaging practices, e.g. de-forestation and dust-bowl creation.

It was agreed that we did not yet fully understand the causes underlying the fertility rate in a society and the changes in it, though it was clear that different causes operated in different societies. In some society’s children might be viewed as potential contributors to the family income, either in cities as scroungers or in the country as labourers in the field, or as a protection in time of sickness or age for the parents: in others, a large family might in itself be seen as a status symbol. In most cases, attitudes might change if the perceived costs of having children rose (whether from the cost of education, the opportunity cost of the mother’s earning power or some other cause). To encourage a change in attitudes, leadership and political will were needed, but coercive governmental measures, which negated the whole principle at stake, the right of the individual woman or couple to choose, were unacceptable. Demand had to come from below.

Indeed, individual women and women’s organisations were the key, though it was important not to ignore the role of men. Measures to enhance the status of women, either by law (e.g. divorce or property) or education, to enable women to play a role in the community other than simply child-bearing, were to be encouraged and were already having an effect in terms of demand for family planning services and contraceptives. Indeed, it was claimed that there was a large unsatisfied demand for contraceptives in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, the problem in meeting it lying not in manufacturing capacity, but in distribution and above all cost. Family planning services needed to be presented as part of a package including health, nutrition and child-care, but it was argued that national health services were not the ideal vehicle: too often they were demoralised, over-staffed, inefficient and corrupt. (There would seem to be a dilemma here, since the task may be complicated and may encounter more resistance if it is seen to require the wholesale replacement of the health service over such a wide field.) Privatisation was the better course and there were successful operations on these lines in several countries. To make family planning widely available to the poor, however, costs must be subsidised. With a reduction in US funding for this, funding was a problem and donors were urgently needed, both to fill the gap and to expand the programmes. Fortunately, there seemed to be a readiness on the part of some donor governments and some international bodies, such as the World Bank, to give a higher priority to family planning within their aid programmes. The role of the non-governmental organisations, with their flexibility was praised, but many felt that such bodies as UNICEF and the Save the Children Fund should pluck up their courage and include family planning in their work. The HIV/AIDS threat was another important element to be considered in this context.

Overall there was need, and with the US regrettably showing less interest, an opportunity, for strong leadership in the international arena. The meeting of the Development Assistance Committee in April 1990 devoted to population had made valuable recommendations which it was to be hoped the Ministerial meeting in December 1990 would endorse. The Commonwealth would be meeting at ministerial level in October to consider issues relating to women and the subject should be aired there; and, as mentioned, the agenda of the UN Conference on Development and the Environment in 1992 must be revised so as to include population issues (and in return the Conference on Population planned for 1994 might address the environmental link).

Perhaps because of the wide consensus prevailing at this conference, there were some fairly clear conclusions:

(a)          Family planning was an issue of individual liberty and freedom of choice.

(b)          While we still understood too little about the mainsprings of fertility and more study was needed, we knew enough to argue with conviction that population growth, economic development and environmental concerns were linked directly or indirectly, the common thread being poverty.

(c)           If family planning was not to become a ‘North-South’ issue, it was necessary to establish and build on that common thread.

(d)          Family planning was centred on women. To be successful the family planning services had to be seen to be responding to demand from the bottom, not foisted on a reluctant population from above and should extend across the fields of health, education, nutrition and child-care.

(e)          Existing women’s organisations were an important way of creating such a demand.

(f)           National health services could not provide family planning services on the scale required and were in other ways inadequate: the private sector had to be mobilised, with subsidies for family planning services and in particular contraceptives.

(g)          There was an urgent need for courageous leadership in the donor community and for a larger proportion of aid funds to be devoted to family planning.

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

Conference Chairman: Sir Peter Marshall KCMG
Chairman: Commonwealth Trust; Royal Commonwealth Society


Dr Naila Kabeer

Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex; Consultant, Women and Development Programme, Commonwealth Secretariat

Sir John Boreham KCB

Retired as Director, Central Statistical Office, and Head of the Government Statistical Service (1978-85)
Mrs Diana Brown
Chairman, Population Concern
Miss Frances Cairncross
Environment Editor, The Economist; author; member of Council, Policy Studies Institute; Trustee, Kennedy Memorial Trust
Mrs Dilys Cossey
Research and Information Officer, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development; Chairwoman, British Family Planning Association; member, Europe Region Council, Europe Region Executive Committee and Central Council, International Planned Parenthood Federation
The Rt Hon the Viscount Craigavon
Independent (Cross-bench) Peer; Chartered Accountant; Vice Chairman, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development
Dr June Goodfield
President, International Health and Biomedicine (UK & USA); Clarence J Robinson Professor and Professor of Health Policy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
Ms Heather Joshi
Senior Research Fellow in Economic Demography, Department of Economics, Birkbeck College, University of London
Dr Carolyn Makinson
Program Officer, Andrew W Mellon Foundation, which supports research on reproductive biology, contraceptive development and population dynamics of less-developed countries
Dr David Nabarro
Head, Health and Population Division and Chief Health and Population Adviser, Overseas Development Administration
The Rt Hon the Baroness Robson of Kiddington
Life Peer (Liberal Democrat); Member, All-Party Parliamentary Group for Population and Development; Director, Marie Stopes International Ltd
Mr Richard Sandbrook
Executive Director, International Institute for Environment and Development, London
Mr John Simons
Senior Lecturer in Population Studies, Centre for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Ms Maureen O'Neil

Executive Director, North-South Institute, Ottawa; Secretary General, federal Human Rights Commission and head, Status of Women Canada; member of board: UN Research Institute for Social Development, United Nations Committee for Development Planning
Dr Anne V T Whyte
Director, Social Sciences Division, International Development Research Centre, (IDRC), Ottawa; Chair, Board of Directors, Canadian Global Change Program; Fellow, Royal Society of Canada

Professor Dr Josef Schmid

Professor of Population Science, University of Bamberg; Advisory Board Member, Federal Institute for Population Research (Wiesbaden FRG); author
Dr Hilde Wander
Lecturer, Population economics and demographic methods, Kiel University

Dr Halfdan Mahler

Secretary General, International Planned Parenthood Federation

Professor Eiko Shinotsuka

Associate Professor, Department of Home Economics, Ochanomizu University; Member, Advisory Committee on National Life Living, Government and Employment Policy, Economic Planning Agency

Mr Sjaak Bavelaar

Director, World Population Foundation, the Netherlands

Ms Jeannie Peterson

Deputy Chief, Governing Council, UN Liaison and External Relations Branch, United Nations Population Fund

Dr Susan Joekes

Research Fellow, The Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

The Hon Richard Elliot Benedick

Senior Fellow of World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation
Professor David E Bloom
Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, Columbia University, New York; author
Ms Jane S DeLung
President, Population Resource Center, New York
The Hon Nancy Ely-Raphel
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs
Mr Philip Harvey
Family planning and international management consultant; author; president of three mail-order companies
Mr William B Johnston
Vice President for Special Projects and project director of the Workforce 2000 study, Hudson Institute
Mr Edwin W Martin
Chairman, Executive Committee of Population Crisis Committee
Dr Frederick O Pinkham
Program Officer for Population, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Los Altos, California
Dr Robert Repetto
Program Director, Economic Policies and Institutions, World Resources Institute, Washington DC
Ms Jill W Sheffield
President, Family Care International, New York; Chairman, Central Executive Committee, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region Inc, New York
Mr Michael S Teitelbaum
Program Officer, Alfred P Sloan Foundation, New York; Commissioner, US Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development
Professor Charles F Westoff
Professor of Demography and Sociology, Princeton University; Director, Office of Population Research; author

Ms Ann O Hamilton

Director, Population and Human Resources Department