Population Matters

Afghanistan: the Future is in the Numbers

November 25th, 2009

Last week Foreign Policy published an article by Richard Cincotta, “Could Demography Save Afghanistan?” which looks at what the population growth rate in Afghanistan will mean to the stability of the country in the next two decades. In a failed state like Afghanistan the growth rate of the population can have a large impact on the stability of the country, in part, because it can create a large youth bulge.  At present, over half the adults in Afghanistan currently is between 15 to 29 years of age.  In poor countries, a large youth bulge can translate into a lot of young men competing for a small number of jobs, making it easier for extremist groups to recruit new members.

Recent numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the Afghan growth rate could be slowing down, but numbers from the U.N. Population Division show it might not be slowing fast enough. Currently, the population of Afghanistan is about 28 million, the Census Bureau projects that the population in 2030 will be 42 million, and the U.N. projects that it will be over 50 million. The difference between these projections is significant to the future stability of Afghanistan. As the article explains:

If the Census Bureau’s prognostications are right – if Afghanistan experiences a sharp decline in family size and slower subsequent growth – this change would represent a milestone in Afghanistan’s development. But if Afghan population growth remains at a high level, auguring a continued surfeit of young job seekers, their disaffection and armed violence, the breakdown of schooling and health services, and the perpetuation of high fertility, it bodes very poorly indeed.

So how do we ensure that Afghanistan follows the correct path? One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is the status of women in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Cincotta notes that, “fewer than half of all the school-age daughters of rural Afghan families are receiving basic education. Many are married during adolescence, and are then limited to performing household chores. If abused, most have no recourse to a fair judicial system.” The low status of women means that most women don’t have a say in their own fertility.

This appears to be slowly changing.  A recent survey showed that women in Afghanistan are now bearing 5.6 children in their lifetime, which is a decrease compared to the 7 to 8 children they were having pre-invasion. Along with this there has been an increase in the use of contraceptives in married women from 5% in 2003 to 16% in 2006.

If this trend holds out it would not only lower the projected population increase, it would likely lead to a steady decrease in maternal mortality. Currently 1 in 8 women in Afghanistan die from pregnancy related causes.  The article illustrates what that means. “To put this figure in perspective, in 2008, about four times as many women died from pregnancy and childbirth in Afghanistan than anyone did from battle-related causes within its borders.”

In charting a new course for Afghanistan, let’s hope that the Obama Administration is taking demography and women into account. As Richard Cincotta concludes in his article:

Whenever the United States and its allies decide that it’s time to leave Afghanistan on its own, they may do so before women’s lives significantly improve, and before their government sufficiently expands education, health care, family planning, and economic opportunity. If that should occur, don’t be surprised if, a few decades later, a foreign power (perhaps the United States, again) find it prudent to intervene – this time, in a much more populous, and perhaps even more impossibly problematic Afghanistan.

USAID/Nawa village, Afghanistan

USAID/Nawa village, Afghanistan

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Putting a Human Face on Animal Extinction

November 23rd, 2009

Psychologists tell us that it’s a lot easier to understand a problem if it’s possible to put a human face on it.  It’s easy to put a human face on the starvation that population pressures can contribute to; not so easy to put a human face on what population pressures and a loss of habitat can do to endangered species.  But a story from MSNBC about efforts to save the Sumatran orangutan succeeds in doing just that.

I could write a blog about how habitat loss due to deforestation is endangering two species of Sumatran Orangutans, and how only 6,000 are now left.  I could even cite a Sumatran Orangutan Society factoid about how “Every minute, every day an area equal to six football fields of Indonesian forest disappears.”  But what does all that really mean?  How can we put a human face on this problem?

Well, the answer to that question can best be seen in a still photo taken from the MSNBC story.  The photo shows a young Sumatran orangutan under sedation with a plastic tube running into her nose.  Looking at that photo, it’s not hard to see the close genetic bond that we humans share with the orangutans, and harder still not to feel concern for their survival.

Fortunately, the orangutan in the photo is healthy; she was merely taken in for medical observation after her mother was shot and killed by a farmer.  The young orangutan was just being rehabilitated and will be placed in a special reserve.  But what about the other 6,000 orangutans that are living in unprotected areas undergoing deforestation?  Too bad we can’t put a human face on them as well.

NBC News Image

NBC News Image

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

A Pivotal Moment

November 20th, 2009

The challenges posed by rapid population growth and rising material consumption are enormous.  Our current trajectories are simply unsustainable; much depends–including the future of the Earth’s climate–on how, and how fast, we lower them.

On the consumption side, prospects are not looking good.  The Copenhagen Climate Conference convenes in two weeks, and already world leaders are bracing for failure.  Pundits caution that the best outcome will be continued deliberation. Any kind of binding international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is several months away…and possibly years.  Meanwhile, the glaciers and ice caps of the world are melting at alarming rates.

On the population side, global fertility rates continue to decline, but global population is still projected to jump from 6.8 billion today to 9.2 billion or higher by 2050.  But population projections and fertility rates are not written in stone.  As Laurie Mazur notes in a recent book:

Nearly half the world’s population–some 3 billion people–is under the age of 25.  Collectively, their choices will determine whether human numbers–now at 6.8 billion–climb to anywhere between 8 and nearly 11 billion by mid-century.

The book, which is edited by Mazur, is entitled A Pivotal Moment:  Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge. For anyone who wants to obtain a better understanding of the population challenge in all its complexities, this is a must read. With more than 30 contributors, the book offers a wide range of opinions and perspectives on one of the most important challenges humanity will ever face.

While all of the contributors regard our current circumstances as a “pivotal moment,” there is disagreement, often sharp, about the way we frame and address the issue of population.  Those differences are important and not to be ignored.  But more than anything else, I was struck by the sense of urgency that pervades much of the book.

In her introduction, Laurie Mazur writes:

Last fall, no acorns fell from the oak trees in our backyard.  Nor, for the first time in memory, did they fall throughout much of the eastern United States.  The honeybees that pollinate our crops have been decimated by a mysterious “colony collapse disorder.”  The Chesapeake Bay…is in its death throes….Of course the bay may recover, the bees and acorns may rebound.  But there is growing sense today that the natural world is unraveling, that we have crossed a threshold, or are peering over the edge.

My favorite quote, however, is from Gus Speth, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:

Humanity is fast approaching a fork in the road.  Beyond the fork, down either path, is the end of the world as we have known it.  One path beyond the fork continues us on our current trajectory. Presidential Science Advisor John Gibbons used to say with a wry smile that if we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we are headed.  And right now we are headed toward a ruined planet.  That is one way the world as we know it could end, down that path, and into the abyss.

But there is another path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss.  Of course, where the path forks will be the site of a mighty struggle, a struggle that must be won even though we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge.  Yet in that struggle and in the crossing that will follow, we are carried by hope, a radical hope, that a better world is possible and that we can build it.

We are, as the title of the book suggests, at a pivotal moment in human history.  Let’s hope that humankind as a whole–not just the contributors to this book–are willing to confront the choices we now face.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

A Food Summit with Little Hope

November 16th, 2009

The World Food Summit on Food Security convened today in Rome, but a Bloomberg news story suggests that international aid agencies believe that the summit may be a “waste of time,” as no new commitments from donor nations are expected.  The lack of action comes despite a report last month from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicating a sharp boost in the number of chronically underfed people in the world.  Due to global recession and stubbornly high food prices, FAO estimates that more than 1 billion people in the world are now hungry.

The worst, however, is yet to come.  According to another Bloomberg news story published today, experts predict that rice prices could double again in the next year due to drought in India and cyclones in the Philippines.  The Bloomberg reported cited concerns voiced by several experts:

Rice may double to more than $1,000 a metric ton as dry El Nino weather shrinks output and the Philippines and India boost imports, said Sarunyu Jeamsinkul, the deputy managing director at Asia Golden Rice Ltd. in Thailand, the largest exporting nation.

Global rice supplies are likely to be tighter than last year, when food shortages sparked riots from Haiti to Egypt, said Jeremy Zwinger, president of The Rice Trader, a brokerage and consulting company in Chico, California. Escalating food prices threaten to spark unrest in developing nations while increasing costs for beer brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos., the biggest U.S. rice buyer, and cereal maker Kellogg Co.

“The demand-supply situation will be extremely tight, with India coming in the market,” said Mamadou Ciss, a rice broker since 1984 and now chief executive officer of Hermes Investments Pte Ltd. in Singapore. The Thai benchmark export price will likely rise at least 20 percent to $650 to $700 a ton in the next three to five months, he said. “The market can even touch $2,000 a ton in the middle of 2010,” Ciss said.

If these forecasts are correct, South Asia and other parts of the world could be facing a severe food crisis in 2010, one that could push tens of millions more–perhaps even a hundred million more people–into the rising tide of global hunger.  Those most at risk will be the world’s urban poor living on less than a dollar or two dollars a day in places like Mumbai, Karachi, and Manila.  Too bad world leaders are not listening to their voices today.  They will be next year.

And then there’s the long-term challenge.  The FAO projects that the demand for food will soar by 70 percent over the next 40 years.  By 2050, food production in the developing world will have to double, according to the FAO.   But how will farmers meet this anticipated demand in the face of global warming, rising energy prices, falling water tables, continued loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding due to climate change?   Good question.

Empowering Women for Better Health

November 13th, 2009

This week the World Health Organization released a report: “Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda”. The report looks at women’s health needs over their lifetime and the contribution women make to the health of society. By looking at women’s health over their lifetime the report is able to draw attention to the consequences and costs of not focusing on women’s health, particularly in their childbearing years.

Addressing women’s health is a necessary and effective approach to strengthening health systems overall-action that will benefit everyone. Improving women’s health matters to women, to their families, communities and societies at large.

Improve women’s health-improve the world.

One of the areas that the report focuses on is reproductive health and the differences in health care between the developed and developing world. One of the more startling numbers is that 99% of maternal deaths, over 500,000 a year, occur in the developing world. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in women ages 15-49 in developing countries.

The report stresses the importance of the Millennium Development Goals in order to improve the health of women. In particular, it focuses on MDG 3, ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, and MDG 5, seeking to reduce maternal deaths and provide universal access to reproductive health services. MDG 3 and MDG 5 work together to build better health outcomes for women in the developing world.

Family planning is critical to bringing down maternal mortality rates in the developing world. If women do not have the power to make choices regarding their own fertility,  this can lead to unintended or mistimed pregnancies that can result in unsafe abortions, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and a high maternal mortality rate. This is just one example of how empowering women can lead to better outcomes for women and their families.

With 2015 as the target date for achieving most of the MDGs, including MDG’s 3 and 5, it is important that donor countries sharply increase funding for women’s empowerment and voluntary family planning.  There is no time to lose.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Climate Change: Imagine the Year is 2040

November 11th, 2009

Imagine that the year is 2040 and climate-related stressors, including stronger storms, drought, and desertification have increased the demand on developed nations for aid and relief services.  Northern Africa has been hard hit by desertification and seawater intrusion, and the Indian subcontinent is reeling from rising sea levels, declining water tables, and high temperatures.  Central America has suffered a significant loss of crops and habitat, and wildfires in Brazil and Argentina are contributing to deforestation and flooding.  How would the U.S respond to the growing calls for humanitarian assistance, and could it respond effectively?

That’s the scenario that was discussed at a conference that CNA hosted last week on the subject of climate change and state resilience.  Absent from the printed scenario, however, was any discussion of one of the key variables:  the population of the affected areas.

That’s a critical oversight. Most climate projections indicate that sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will suffer the worst of climate change, and many of the countries in those regions are already high on the list of failing or potentially failing states.  Climate change is likely to have a devastating impact on countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Sudan, and on many parts of India and Bangladesh.

Whether these nations and the world at large are able to respond effectively to the humanitarians needs that will arise in these areas depends in no small degree on how many people are living in them.  In virtually all these areas, population is on track to grow by 50 percent or more by mid-century.  In fact, many of the failing states that will be slammed by climate change could double their populations in the next half century.  Some could even triple their populations.

The operative word above is “could.”  If the MDG 5 goal of providing universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services is realized, the population growth of many fragile states could fall short of current projections. And if we can do a better job of educating women, elevating their status, and eliminating such practices as early childhood marriage, we might have a fighting chance of stabilizing many failing states now threatened by climate change.

But if population, family planning and reproductive health are left out of the climate change adaptation debate, there is probably little hope for many of these failing states. The U.S. and other donor nations will be incapable of addressing the escalating tide of human suffering.  A lot depends on whether the U.S. and other donor nations take immediate steps to boost their support for MDG 5 and the ICPD Programme of Action.  There is no time to waste.



Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

(Note: This blog was posted earlier this week on the “Conversations for a Better World” blogsite).

Show Us the Money

November 2nd, 2009

This past week, I traveled to Addis Ababa with PI’s President, Bill Ryerson, to observe the International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.  In listening to the parliamentarians describe the steps that are being taken in their respective countries, it’s hard to deny that progress is being made.  But with only five years remaining on the 20-year Programme of Action, it’s all too clear that the world is falling far short of the hopes that were raised by the 1994 Cairo agreement.

Yes, there is a far greater awareness today of the need to elevate the status of women in developing countries. Similarly, there is a growing understanding of the importance of providing universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services.  But awareness is no substitute for action.

Of all the Millennium Development Goals, MDG 5 (reducing maternal mortality and providing universal access to reproductive health services) is the one that shows the least progress. The reason is simple.  Donor nations, including the U.S., have not fulfilled their pledges.  All the diplomatic rhetoric is fine, but to paraphrase a famous Hollywood line:  Show us the money.

After a decade of declining support for international family planning assistance, the U.S. is once again boosting its funding and renewing its support for UNFPA. That’s critically important, but other donor nations are still backtracking on their commitments.  A representative from the Netherlands declared that his country would maintain its financial commitments to realizing MDG 5, but other donor nations remained largely silent on that point.

Still, it’s also important to recognize that money and services alone will not fulfill the Programme of Action or realize MDG 5. More than just a lack of clinics and reproductive health services, we also need to address the cultural barriers and practices that continue to depress the status of women in developing countries.  Unless we can do more to prevent early childhood marriages, domestic violence, marriage by abduction, and female genital mutilation, women and their reproductive health will continue to suffer, as will efforts to expand the use of family planning services.

While in Addis Ababa, I was pleased to sit in on workshops being conducted by the Population Media Center.  It gave me a chance to meet the writers of the PMC-generated serial dramas that are helping to promote family planning, prevent the spread of AIDS, and combat female genital mutilation in Ethiopia.  Reaching about half of Ethiopia’s population, the radio serial dramas produced by PMC are showing real success. Surveys conducted at family planning clinics indicate that the soap operas are dramatically raising awareness and boosting demand for family planning and HIV/AIDS testing.

I also learned in Addis Ababa that the Ethiopian government is responding to that increased demand by rapidly expanding the number of family planning clinics and health workers. In Ethiopia and elswhere there is still cause for hope and time for action.

Now, if only the donor nations were fulfilling all their commitments….Show us the money!

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

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

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President