Population Matters

Population Growth and Commodities

July 29th, 2009

Sixteen months ago, when commodity prices were soaring, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story (“New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears” March 24, 2008) that suggested that population growth and rising prosperity were contributing to a sustained rise in commodity prices. The article said that:

Although a Malthusian catastrophe is not at hand, the resource constraints foreseen by the Club of Rome are more evident today than at any time since the 1972 publication of the think tank’s famous book, “The Limits of Growth.” Steady increases in the prices for oil, wheat, copper and other commodities — some of which have set record highs this month — are signs of a lasting shift in demand as yet unmatched by rising supply.

As the world grows more populous — the United Nations projects eight billion people by 2025, up from 6.6 billion today — it also is growing more prosperous. The average person is consuming more food, water, metal and power. Growing numbers of China’s 1.3 billion people and India’s 1.1 billion are stepping up to the middle class, adopting the high-protein diets, gasoline-fueled transport and electric gadgets that developed nations enjoy. The result is that demand for resources has soared. If supplies don’t keep pace, prices are likely to climb further, economic growth in rich and poor nations alike could suffer, and some fear violent conflicts could ensue.

Today, with the global economy mired in the greatest recession since the Great Depression, talk on Wall Street about “limits to growth” has abated. Or has it?

An Internet news service, www.istockanaylst.com , yesterday posted a story (“Commodities and Population Growth”) about a new investment fund that tracks the Deutsche Bank Liquid Commodity Index.

The article quotes Doug Fabian, a financial advisor who specializes in index funds, as saying that, “World population growth trends suggest massive numbers of new global citizens on the way — citizens that are going to require essentials such as food, clothing and shelter.” While commodities prices are still suffering from the effects of the recession, Fabian advised that “the protracted pullback in commodities likely will prove to be temporary.”

Of course, the prospect of rising commodity prices may be good news for savvy investors, but resource scarcity is bad news for people in developing countries. A renewed spike in food and energy prices could have a devastating impact on those living on less than $2 a day.  The number of people living in severe poverty already has increased this year by an estimated 55 to 90 million people.  A quick return to higher commodity prices could easily boost that number.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive vice President

The Arab Population Challenge

July 28th, 2009

The Arab Human Development Report 2009, released last week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gives a grim assessment of the challenges facing the region. Independently authored by Arab scholars, the report concludes that human insecurity in the region:

….is heightened by swift climatic changes, which threaten the livelihoods, income and access to food and water of millions of Arabs in future. It is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want. Human insecurity is palpable and present in the alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth and in the predicaments of its subordinated women, and dispossessed refugees.

The report identified population pressures as a mounting concern:

According to UN estimates, the Arab countries will be home to some 395 million people by 2015 (compared to about 317 million in 2007, and 150 billion in 1980). In a region where water and arable land are shrinking, population growth at these rates while falling, will still put intense pressures on the carrying capacity of Arab countries’ lands and further threaten environmental sustainability.

The report also indicates that population growth is exacerbating efforts to reduce unemployment. The region will have to create 50 million new jobs by 2020 to accommodate a youthful and rapidly growing workforce. With two out of five Arabs already living on less than $2 a day, the challenge is daunting.

Many factors are inhibiting economic and social development in the region, including violence against women and the continued prevalence of early childhood marriages. The report notes that:

Arab countries have yet to adopt laws prohibiting child marriage before the age of majority, namely, eighteen years of age. Yet studies indicate that early marriage and teenage pregnancies threaten the health of mothers and children, and increase female vulnerability to violence. Early marriages often lead to divorce, family breakdown and poor child-rearing. They commonly encourage early childbearing and high fertility, which carry marked health risks for very young mothers and their infants. Although early marriage is on the decline in the Arab countries, the numbers of teenage girls who are married remains significant in some countries.

The situation is not entirely dire. Fertility rates in many parts of the region continue to fall, thereby easing the development challenge. But some of the poorest countries in the region, like Yemen, are on a dangerous demographic trajectory. Yemen’s population, currently 22.2 million, is projected to reach 58.8 million by mid-century. And Yemen has an acute water shortage that threatens to cripple economic and agricultural development.

As the Arab Human Development Report 2009 makes clear, rapid population growth is far from the only problem confronting the region. Corruption, non-representative governments, human rights abuses, and climate change all pose significant problems for the Arab world. But rapid population growth will make it more–not less–difficult to address those other problems.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

For all the Right Reasons: A Big Boost in Family Planning Assistance

July 8th, 2009

This week, just days before the July 11th commemoration of World Population Day, the U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on a foreign aid appropriations bill that provides $648 million in funding for U.S. international family planning assistance programs.

It’s critically important that the House rejects any attempt to reduce this funding level. While the $648 million appropriation is $103 million more than this year’s funding level, it still falls far short of what’s needed.

Earlier this year, five former directors of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID offered a special report, “Making the Case for U.S. International Family Planning Assistance” that urged Congress to boost funding to $1.2 billion in 2010 and to $1.6 billion by 2014. That recommendation was based on several factors, including the level of unmet need for family planning in 53 countries, a careful assessment of USAID’s ability to administer a program boost of that size, and a review of the payoffs that would result from a higher funding level.

Citing earlier USAID research about the benefits of family planning and a report by the Global Health Council, the former directors indicated that every $100 million in family planning adds 3.6 million contraceptive users; prevents 2.1 million unintended pregnancies, 825,000 abortions, 70,000 infant deaths; and saves 4,000 maternal lives.  And citing the results of another USAID study, the former directors reported that a $27 million investment in family planning in Zambia would cut program costs by $111 million due to cost savings in education and health programs.

Factor in what family planning means in many countries in terms of the environment, food security, and economic development, and a big boost in international family planning assistance becomes the legislative equivalent of a “no-brainer.”  Let’s hope so.

Urban health workers monitor children and women’s health, and provide contraceptives to women through USAID health programs. Anita Khemka/USAID

Urban health workers monitor children and women’s health, and provide contraceptives to women through USAID health programs. Anita Khemka/USAID

Welcome to Population Matters

July 7th, 2009

Welcome to Population Matters, the Population Institute’s new blog.

We want to foster a public dialogue on matters related to population, family planning and reproductive health. That’s because population matters and it matters a lot.

It matters, first and foremost, to women who want to space or limit their pregnancies, but who lack the knowledge or access to the modern methods of contraception that would allow them to do so. It also matters to their families. Family planning and reproductive health services contribute to healthier families and, in many developing countries, can increase the chances that children will get the education and other services that they need. It’s also important to gender equity; girls and women who are able to decide when to give birth have a much better chance of realizing their dreams, whether it’s finishing school, starting a business, or just raising a healthy family.

But in a world threatened by climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and even conflict, giving women the ability to space or limit their pregnancies takes on even larger significance.  A lot hinges on whether women understand their reproductive choices and have access to modern contraceptives. We need to talk openly and honestly about those implications.

From time to time, we will be inviting guest bloggers to contribute to Population Matters. We may not agree with everything they say, but we want to promote a vigorous discussion. We invite your readership and comments.

Also, if you would like to join my mailing list to receive a daily article or editorial on population issues, please sign up at www.populationmedia.org/who/subscribe-to-pmc/.

William Ryerson
President