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Up With People

By Ron Duncan - July 28, 2004 12:00 AM

For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UN Population Division is projecting that the decline in human fertility that has been ongoing throughout the developed world, and most of the developing world, for a long time is going to stop and the process go into reverse. The UN's projections over the period 1994 to 1998 were reduced by over 500 million for year 2030 and by almost one billion for 2050. However, in their 2000 projections, global population was increased by 160 million for 2030 and by almost 400 million for 2050. The changes in the fertility assumptions were the basis for these reversals.

But why?

The main factors underlying population projections are fertility rates (the average number of children born to women of child-bearing age), the mortality rate, and migration. Of these variables, the most important, and the one that has proved to be most difficult to project, is the fertility rate. The UN Population Division has for the past 50 years consistently under-estimated the rate at which fertility has fallen throughout the world. And while Its record of forecasting life expectancy is not as poor, there has been a bias towards under-estimating the age to which people will live on average.

The fertility rate has been declining in most countries for a long time. In nearly all developed countries, it is now below -- in some, well below -- the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children born on average per female. In Italy, Japan, Portugal, and Spain it is down around 1.2-1.3, which means that their population growth is slowing very quickly. Japan's population is projected to begin to decline in 2007, and may well happen before then. There is no sign of a turnaround in fertility, even in the countries that have reached very low rates. The only high-income country in which the fertility decline was reversed was Sweden but the reversal did not last very long.

Some of the Asian countries that have experienced high rates of economic growth now have fertility rates below replacement level. For example, the fertility rate in South Korea is 1.5.

One thing that is clear is that there is little understanding of the factors that affect the fertility rate, the reasons for the continuing decline in the fertility rate, and the persistence of fertility rates well below the replacement rate. Therefore, it is heroic for the UN to assume an increase in fertility rates rather than assume that rates will remain constant at present levels or continue to decline. Given this dearth of understanding, how can the UN assume that Japan's fertility rate will move back up to 1.75 by 2050? Or, given the current fertility rate in Japan, why should South Korea's fertility rate remain at its present level for the next five years and then increase to 2.1 by 2050 -- especially when South Korea's fertility rate has been falling faster than Japan's did?

Given the size of their populations, what happens to the fertility rate in China and India will be very important for global population numbers. In the case of China the UN has assumed an increase in the fertility rate from the present 1.8 to 1.9 in 2010-2015 and thereafter. This is despite a senior government spokesperson saying that China has no intention of relaxing its family planning policies, and with China's own projections to 2050 assuming a continuing decline in the fertility rate. The UN assumes that the fertility rate in India will continue to decline until 2025 and then hold at the replacement rate of 2.1. There is no basis in the experience of other countries to support such assumptions.

Why should the UN take this unjustifiable position? International agencies and non-government organizations that have depended for their funding to a large extent on projections of continuing large growth in the global population (the bogeyman of big numbers) have expressed concern that there is a growing complacency about the fact that global population growth is slowing quickly. The global population is highly unlikely to reach anywhere near the kinds of levels that certain groups were projecting until recently. Therefore, global population projections have lost a lot of steam in terms of maintaining funds for activities such as family planning. There is some suggestion in its projections of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the UN Population Division was influenced by the "population bomb" scare being promoted at the time. It would be a great pity if the agency's recent projections are subject to similar influences.

The author is Emeritus Professor, School of Economics, The Australian National University.


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