(October 2001) What will future fertility be in less developed countries where fertility today remains very high and where declines have been negligible or slow? Will these countries follow the pattern of other developing countries where couples are now having smaller families?

At a recent UN Population Division workshop, researchers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America met to answer these questions.

Despite a rapid transition to low fertility in a majority of less developed countries during the past four decades, 46 countries have period fertility rates exceeding five births per woman. Among these countries, 35 are in sub-Saharan Africa.

The workshop concluded that fertility rates in the majority of high-fertility countries are declining, albeit recently. Five sub-Saharan countries are progressing rapidly through the incipient stage of the fertility transition (declines of more than 0.60 children per woman per five-year period). In 20 high-fertility countries, the rate of decrease in the average number of children per woman ranges from 0.30 to 0.60 children per woman over five years, and in 10 countries fertility is declining slowly at a rate of 0.05–0.29 children per woman every five years. In 11 sub-Saharan countries with a combined population of 100 million (Sierra Leone through Somalia in the figure below), the fertility transition remains at an initial stage.

Speed of Fertility Decline in High-Fertility Countries

Speed of Fertility Decline in High-Fertility Countries

*From maximum level to the last available estimate in the 1990s.
Source: UN Population Division.

Still, the prospects for continued fertility decline in many high-fertility countries are mixed. Because observed fertility decline in some countries has been crisis driven, some of the workshop participants questioned whether the average number of children per woman in these countries would even fall below 4 by 2025. The outcome of the Population Division's deliberations provides food for thought for UN demographers, as they review future fertility assumptions for the 2002 revision of the official UN population estimates and projections.

Joseph Chamie is director of the UN Population Division.

For More Information

Background documents and other materials from the workshop are available on the website of the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, www.un.org/esa/population/unpop.htm.