by Bill Butz

This is the last in a series of three thematically linked Web-exclusive essays by Bill Butz, president of the Population Reference Bureau. The essays cover the complex challenges of today's population issues and how PRB is responding to those challenges. Previous essays in the series include The Double Divide: Implosionists and Explosionists Endanger Progress Since Cairo and The World's 'Next Population Problem.'

(January 2006) The world's population—now about 6.5 billion people—live and die either with their basic needs fulfilled or in squalor and disease. In order to design policies and programs to improve everyone's well-being, policymakers need access to good data and research on the size of problems, their causes, and possible solutions.

Yet policymakers often do not know about or know how to use data and research. As often, researchers don't understand the policy process and know how to communicate their key findings to policymakers. This gap between researchers and policymakers contributes to misunderstandings (on topics ranging from where rapid population growth remains a problem to new patterns of migration among developing countries) as well as to misdirected policies.

At PRB, we work to close this gap. Our mission is to inform people around the world about population, health, and the environment and to empower them to use that information to advance the well-being of current and future generations.

We have two approaches in this work. First, PRB builds coalitions around the world to disseminate population, health, and environment information. Second, these coalitions mobilize civil society to ensure that policy decisions are informed by good evidence.

These approaches set PRB apart from most other organizations in the population field. Some of those organizations do the critical laboratory work from which new contraceptives or vaccines emerge. Others conduct field trials and demonstrations of improved systems to deliver these contraceptives and vaccines. Still others are on the front lines of day-to-day environmental interventions, child welfare programs, or family-planning clinic operation. Their contributions are essential to advancing well-being and empowerment in both less and more developed countries.

But because informed government policy lays the groundwork for service-delivery programs that work, making usable information more available to policymakers can improve reproductive health and human welfare just as surely as can increasing the availability of contraceptives and vaccines. Indeed, without quality information and the informed policies that flow from such information, service delivery programs meet with a climate that is usually indifferent and sometimes hostile.

Building Coalitions to Generate Quality Information

As population issues in the United States and around the world multiply, it is impossible for any organization, including PRB, to become expert on every population issue in every locale.

Even in places where we are expert, local partnerships expand our ability to inform and empower. Building such coalitions with other people and organizations is our way to stay nimble while the external environment evolves. Although establishing and nurturing these partnerships takes work, we are committed to making them happen—and our current partnerships have produced impressive results.

For example, PRB partners with 125 organizations working in the areas of reproductive and child health, HIV/AIDS, and population to maintain Population and Health InfoShare ( InfoShare, a platform for sharing and accessing research findings that are from and relevant to less developed countries, is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now containing nearly 1,500 documents, InfoShare enables research groups in developing countries to reach a global audience.

Another example of PRB's coalition-building is our partnership with the KidsCount Affiliate organizations in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Yearly publication of the percent of U.S. children without health insurance in the KIDS COUNT Data Book in the 1990s helped these organizations and others stimulate passage of the Federal State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which has provided health insurance for millions of low-income children.

Mobilizing Civil Society With Quality Information

Civil society is about the way people disagree and negotiate, among themselves and through their institutions and government. In civil societies, people have enough information to inform their disagreements. They tend to agree on the basic information so that their disagreements focus on different futures rather than descriptions of the way things currently are. And they have enough education to understand the basic information and use it in making decisions. In civil societies, people can go on and on disagreeing without ever taking up a gun.

PRB plays an important part in providing the information about population and related issues to mobilize civil societies around the world. For example, because people trust PRB's expertise and reputation, they don't challenge the information on our annual World Population Data Sheet. They accept it and develop ideas about future options and opportunities based on these accepted facts. The Data Sheet is now consulted worldwide in an astonishingly broad range of situations—from Washington to Taipai to Addis Ababa, from health ministries to population and census offices, NGOs and think tanks, university and secondary-school teachers and students, journalists, and interested citizens.

The broader the domain of accepted facts becomes, the more civil the world will be. PRB's printed reports, electronic products, and face-to-face training are all crucial in expanding the domain of accepted population facts—and, therefore, in framing the debates on public policies that influence population issues.

For example, PRB is organizing this March the second annual National Conference on Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) in the Philippines, a country in which rapid population growth has been linked to degradation of natural resources such as mangrove forests. At the conference, experienced PHE project managers will present case studies of how and why their programming has been successful in communities across the Philippines. The conference is an outgrowth of PRB's partnership with the office of Save the Children-Philippines as well as the Philippines Legislators' Committee on Population and Development.

On the U.S. front, data on American children in working poor families, published in the KIDS COUNT report, helped spur several policies and programs aimed at supporting low-income working families during the 1990s, including an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and expanded child care subsidies. These programs have been linked to better outcomes for children during the past 10 years.

Looking Ahead

Demographically, the world is considerably more complicated than only a few decades ago.

For instance, the term "population explosion" then covered much if not most of what mattered about population growth. But now, while population is still growing in most of the world's countries because of past high fertility, fertility rates are falling in almost every country, and many nations face population aging and decline. Which population-growth policy to favor—and where to favor it—is hardly simple anymore.

And a few decades ago, "migration" consisted of only three major trends: a "brain drain" of researchers and creative people from developing to developed countries, a corresponding movement of laborers in the same direction, and nearly ubiquitous urbanization.

But now, migration patterns are highly disparate. China, India, and a number of other countries previously on the losing side of the brain-drain phenomenon have become powerhouses of highly trained intellectual talent, attracting their own expatriates and others to their shores. People increasingly are moving from one developing country to another (for example, from Bangladesh to the countries in the Middle East) for jobs and income. And jobs are also increasingly skipping over international borders in search of workers.

Old advocacy and policy coalitions come under strain as these more-complicated population patterns alter individual, national, and regional self-interests. As a result, heated policy debates are not hard to find about issues with a population core—family planning, reproductive health, children and youth, the environment, aging, migration and urbanization, poverty and inequality, and gender equity.

The issues framing these debates also make up the core themes of the Population Reference Bureau. But PRB, through evidence-based information, spreads light on these important questions. By building coalitions and mobilizing civil society, we help ensure that policy decisions do indeed advance the well-being of current and future generations.

Bill Butz is president of the Population Reference Bureau.