PRB Discuss Online: Demographic Divide, Diverging Population Growth Trends

(September 2008) More than 80 million people were added to the world’s population in 2008, which ensures continued growth in coming decades. However, the increase is highly concentrated among the least developed countries, while more developed countries are growing little or even declining. These diverging trends will drive rapid aging in some countries and burgeoning youth populations in others.


During a PRB Discuss Online, Carl Haub, senior demographer at PRB, and Mary Mederios Kent, senior demographic editor at PRB, answered participants’ questions about what lies behind these current population growth trends and the implications for future generations.


September 25, 2008 1 PM EST


Transcript of Questions and Answers


John Grant: Could a sharp rise in mortality in the poorest countries derail the anticipated population boom, if food and energy become even more expensive?
Carl Haub: I doubt that the food crisis would be enough to raise mortality to such a level. It would have to be something bordering on widespread famine, something usually precipitated by political events and/or crop failure. There is also the prospect of hopefully improved and more universal health care, including immunizations, acting to reduce child and adult mortality. And, apparently, we now have the prospect of declining oil prices, at least for the moment. But we should also not ignore the fact that many families cannot afford a sufficient diet now.

Douglas G. Alexandeer: In the past, I observed the variance in population growth between countries equally high considering subsets of populations within countries with rapidly growing populations. Does the Population Reference Bureau feel the subset of individuals that display reduced birth rate have a disproportionately high influence on economic, political and social decisions within that country? If so, have you developed strategies to help these individuals influence the rapidly growing subset of their population to reduce family size? Additionally, are their demographic indicators that indicate the proportion of the population within one country that have significantly lower TFR?

Carl Haub: Your question is really very appropriate as nearly all developing countries have widely varying TFRs across geographic regions, income groups, etc. PRB has primarily given significant publicity to those differentials through its publications, seminars, and extensive work with journalists in the affected countries. To your last question, I would point you to the many Demographic and Health Surveys available online at which have preceisely what you are inquiring about.

Annie Misra: Is the recent contamination of melamine in the baby food of China infact a strategy to lower the population rate or a constructive ploy by the medical persons and the companies to increase their incomes?
Carl Haub: I would seriously doubt that anything of that nature would be intentional. For one thing, China already has a very low population growth rate and has even voiced concern about aging although there won’t be any chnage in its population policy anytime soon.
Mary Mederios Kent: The widescale distribution of contaminated baby formula in China is a tragic situation. I can’t presume to know how the tainted product got into the stores or who was responsible. But I highly doubt it has anything to do with China’s population policy or medical professionals.

Torwon Sulonteh-Brown: Africa is rich in so many minerals that could cater to the welfare of its citizens. But in spite of this, the continent is still plagued with so many other factors including corruption, poverty, high unemployment rate, HIV/Aids, other diseases among others, leaving a wider gap between the rich and poor. How can the divide be broken when richer countries continue to exploit poor nations that have the resources without returns?
Carl Haub: To begin with, I would think that that is something the African people themselves will ultimately have to do themsleves. Realistically, political help from the North seems improbable. Other than rhetoric and some embargoes, little was done to remove Mugabe or invalidate the sham election. But perhaps the rich countries could help by significantly bolstering the funding of organizations such as the African Union so that an indigenous supranational body might pressure national leaders.

Muntasir Masum: Do you think diverging population growth trends might affect poor third world countries like Bangladesh negatively? Would you recommend any population growth model for Bangladesh?
Carl Haub: Well, Bangladesh has actually done fairly well in reducing its population growth with a total fertility rate of about 2.7 children per woman, quite low for such a high poverty country. Apparently, much of the success has come from delivery family planning information and services to the village and even household level. That is the type of thing that is needed and it would have to be expanded even further.

Mr. Cafiero’s Pd. 3 Human Geography Class: What are the potential probelms that developed countries with aging populations (ex. Russia, Italy, Germany) must face as we progress in the 21st century? How much of a disadvantage are countries with zero to negative population growth really at?
Carl Haub: The obvious one is unprecedented aging, with countries moving towards under-of proportions of population ages 65 and over, as high as 40 percent in Japan. So, the clear concern is for the support of pension programs with very skewed worker:retiree ratios. Raising the age at retirement would help, but unions and the public are often against that. Additionally, providing long-term health care for a very large and long-lived elderly may be the biggest financial challenge yet. Finally, the need to import foreign labor force will require large social and cultural changes, further straining socities. As if those were not enough, emerging economic nations in Asia and latin America will provide very stiff economic competition on all levels.

Ravindra Nath Vyas: Is demographic divide not a consequence of development divide? Is there any answer to this problem other then gradual development of these less developed countries?
Carl Haub: In part, yes, but certainly not always. Government committment to a policy to lower the birth has succeeded quite well in countries with a low level of development. And, it would seem difficult to develop economically when, say, nearly half the population of a country is belowe age 15. But development, if it includes raising educational levels, can certainly play a role. Urbanization and a decline of the proportion working in agriculture usually follows as well.

Sri Moertiningisih Adioetomo: How can developed and developing countries benefited with the explosion of young workers at the developing countries and lacking in young workers in the developed countries?
Carl Haub: Your question, of course, is at the heart of the “immigration debate” in many dveloping countries. Either developed countries with a serious lack of workers have to develop policies on immigration that work well for both sides or they will have to accept the fact that their population will necessarily become more culturally diverse. In truth, the latter can probably only go so far before resistance manifests itself. Witness the current protest over building a large mosque in Gologne, Germany. But there have been many successes in developed nations accepting immigrants without too much difficulty as well.

Mr. Cafiero’s Pd. 3 Human Geography Class: To what extent should Western, modernized nations advocate gender equality as a remedy to curb poplation growth in developing nations? Also, if the current trends of population growth continue, how will the global economy be affected if the population of developing nations dramtically outweighs the population of developed nations?
Carl Haub: Gender equality is the most often-cited “key” to slowing population growth. As woman gain more control over decisions that affect them, fertility rates typically fall. High fertility often results from a society’s value of large numbers of children, often at the expense of a woman’s health, or from such things as the pressure to bear sons. Well, developing country population already heavily outweighs the developed but we are now seeing economic growth as a rival as well. I think that it will be quite significant and come sooner than many expect. India is likely to become a major producer of automobiles and China is seriously moving ahead to become a competitor with Airbus and Boeing, both major sources of export income in their countries. Just two examples, but there are many more.

Richard Cincotta: Demographic divergence will be sustained if current stalling in a substantial number of African countries(and a few Asian and Latin American states, as well) continues. Have demographers reached research-based conclusions suggesting what may be responsible for stalling in most of these countries, and what practical programmatic solutions might be applicable?
Carl Haub: We don’t know of research that has come up with a common cause for stalling but there are some factors countries might have in common. A lessening of government committment can certainly be one, along with increasing emphasis on HIV/AIDS and less on family planning, which is believed to have played some role in Kenya. But, in general, the desire for large families does not change overnight, of course. Family planning programs may reach a receptive population in the beginning (urban, higher education) but face a much more difficult task in the large rural population where the tradition of large families is more entrenched. Stalls, incidentally, are not confined to Africa. Indonesia, with its innovative family planning back to the 1970s, has seen its TFR stall at about 2.6 for two surveys now. Is Indonesia resisting “replacement level” fertility? Interesting. As per my opinion two things are most important to stabilize population growth. One is commitment of the people and commitment of the rulers or government. If there is lack in these two things, we do not achieve anything. According to you what else would help the population stabilization?
Mary Mederios Kent: I agree that political and public commitment is a necessary ingredient for implementing policies to improve health and to slow population growth in low-income countries. In all countries, couples should have access to efficient means of family planning—but that is a tall order in areas lacking basic health care. A host of factors can help, many of which may require funding from international donors, including expanding education and access to health care, and improving the infrastructure needed to effect these changes. Such improvements will also aid in socioeconomic development of these countries.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: Political consensus will be required to tackle this issue. Population growth does not appear to be a politically “popular” issue at present, and developing nations will bear the brunt of this growth. What are your suggestions regarding this? Will disincentives for having large families have an effect?
Mary Mederios Kent: You are right that rapid population growth does not get the attention or generate the concern that it once did in the U.S. and other developed countries. I think we should look for opportunities to inform people that rapid growth is still a threat in the poorest countries when we discuss other related issues—including population stagnation or decline, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or food scarcity—that are getting some attention. Many recent PRB publications look at the link between population growth and poverty, environmental degradation, and poor health. Regarding disincentives for having large families—China and Vietnam have penalized families with many children, but most countries have not resorted to such measures. Family planning efforts in rapid-growth countries tend to emphasize the advantages of smaller families rather than impose disincentives for large families. It could be argued that rising living costs are a disincentive for having many children.

Ernest Nettey: In the 1980s and 90s, Family Planning was a big thing in Ghana. Somehow it has disappeared from the public discourse in this country. With the impact of youthful population and pronatalist culture, what prospects does Family Planning hold for fertility transition in Sub Saharan africa,or is it a lost cause?
Mary Mederios Kent: I think that sub-Saharan Africa will eventually have a transition to lower fertility; some countries are on their way. I’ve seen the survey data from Ghana (and several other African countries) that indicate little increase in family planning use in the past decade—and little decline in fertility levels. But there is also evidence of a strong desire by women for more control over their childbearing. The most recent survey for Ghana indicated that at least a third of women would like to limit or time their next pregnancy, but were not using a family planning method. These figures on the latent demand for family planning suggest that fertility would decline if women had better access to family planning information and supplies. As several other questioners have noted, expanding reproductive health services will require political commitment and will as well as funding.

Frank L Farmer: What are the implications of the demographic divide for international migration. Has any work been done on the spatial element? To wit: is there a propinquity effect (on migration behavior).
Mary Mederios Kent: It is interesting that only about 3 percent of the world’s population moves to another country, but of course the departures and arrivals of international migrants affect some countries much more than others. The more developed countries with little or no population are attracting immigrants from countries with rapid growth (Africans moving to Europe or the United States, for example)—but most international migrants do not move that far from home. Nearly one-half of the people who move across national borders are going from one less developed country to another. Most people move only as far as needed to find better opportunities. A recent PRB Population Bulletin, “Managing Migration: The Global Challenge” by Phil Martin and Gottfried Zurcher, provides more information and sources on this topic.

Olalla Bohigas-Sobremazas: Hi Mr. Haub and Ms. Kent, I am a Geography student from Spain an I would like to ask you if you think that a public family planning policy in the less-developed countries could reduce the population growth in those countries. Thank you.
Mary Mederios Kent: A number of studies have estimated the effect of family planning programs on fertility levels in less developed countries. They find generally that these programs do led to lower fertility, as long as they are well run and have adequate supplies. In some countries, the private sector overtakes the public programs as a source of family planning. In others, overall family planning use lags when public programs lose funding. This may have happened in Kenya during the 1990s when health funds were diverted to address the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic there. Family planning use stopped increasing, and the fertility rate “stalled.”

Michael F.: What do you think about the chicken and egg question that always comes up? Will economic growth slow the birth rate, or will a slowing birth rate cause economic growth? There are cases for both (China is a classic case of the birth rate dropping first – if by force). This seems an idealogical issue, yet the two are intertwined (it’s not red or blue, it’s purple!). What do you say to peope who insist one will only follow the other?
Carl Haub: In fact, I don’t think there is one overall answer for all countries, every country is different in many ways. In Bangladesh, fertility declined in the face of poverty due to the government’s efforts and the lack of available land for a growing population. In many other cases, however, economic growth and fertility reduction seem to parallel one another, as in Indonesia and Malaysia. Other examples come from within countries, such as low fertility in relatively wealthy Punjab state in India, high fertility in much poorer Uttar Pradesh.

Mr. Cafiero’s Pd. 3 Human Geography Class: How do governments wrestle with traditional cultural values while attempting to implement family planning programs in rural areas of developing nations with high population growth rates?
Mary Mederios Kent: Many cultures value large families and resist the idea of limiting childbearing. But surveys have found that even in these areas, women often express a desire to control when and if they get pregnant. Many family planning programs have been successful by enlisting local women to educate their neighbors about family planning methods.

Kantroo Chaman: more advanced people-meaning countries aswell as people in a country- have more leisure. Hence greater opportunities to think , to look around and hence plan according to their means, necessities and cultural ethos. The people with far less advancement lack these opportunities. Even if they knew their financial, social, political and availability of resources limits their planning and execution of their planning. So how is one to eliminate these factors in a time bound manner, yet in not too distant a future?
Mary Mederios Kent: I think that expanding access to health care, especially reproductive heatlh care in this case, can make it easier for all couples to plan their families. While greater education and higher income are associated with greater family planning use and lower ferility, they are not necessary. Some family planning programs have been very successful among rural and less educated populations.

Pietronella van den Oever: What is the likelihood that there would be compatibility between rapid population growth, and rapid decline? This is, would it be possible that countries with rapid decline have a conscious policy to absorb a part of the “surplus” growth from developing countries? Pros and cons?
Carl Haub: Very little, I would think, especially in view of the fact that most very low fertility countries (Europe, Japan, S. Korea) are very worried about the effect of extreme demographic aging and the dilution of their national culture and identity. Some countries, though, seem to accept the need for immigrants after the fact, however. Spain, for example, has quite a liberal policy of legalizing informal foreign workers as permanent residents but many are Spanish-speaking from Latin America.

J Kishore: When we see population in the world as whole then it is really a serious concern. Aging can be managed but further growth of population would be a threat to planet. May be redistribution of population within globe.
Carl Haub: If by redistribution you mean the migration of younger labor force ages to countries with rapidly aging populations, that certainly is a matter of hot debate globally. That does happen to a degree and will doubtless continue to do so but true redistribution would imply a world without borders, not likely anytime soon.

Sri Moertiningisih Adioetomo: The effect of Indonesia’s demographic transtition is the explosion of young workers, while the developed countries are lacking in young workers. How can the divide be eliminated with migration replacment? Benefiting both developed and developing countries?
Mary Mederios Kent: The migration of large number of workers to another country—South Asians taking jobs in some Middle Eastern countries for example—can solve a short term labor shortage. But these movements also have their own problems over the longer term, especially regarding the status of the foreign workers. A study by the UN showed that the number of migrants that would have to move to Europe to stave off population decline would be so large as to be untenable. So, large scale migration probably is not a way to eliminate the demographic divide in population growth.

Josh Finnegan Carver: Could India surpass China in population growth and when do you think it will happen?
Carl Haub: India will definitely pass China in population and that should occur sometime in the early 2020’s, not too far away. India could well go on to be the first, and possibly only, country to hit 2 billion especially if birth rates do not fall quickly enough in its largest states.

Olayinka Oyegbile: What can the developing world do to put its population in control taking into cognizance the fact that many are opposed to modern family planning methods?
Mary Mederios Kent: As mentioned in some other responses, there appears to be a latent demand for family planning even in many counties where large families are valued. One key is gaining a high-level political commitment to expanding access to family planning and other health services. More government are realizing that slowing population growth can further socioeconomic development in their countries.

Phil Harvey: When do you think the population of the world will begin to shrink?
Carl Haub: Both China and India will play a very large role but I personally feel that it will be closer to the end of this century than has been projected in the past. In part, that expectation is fed by growing pessimism concerning population growth in Africa and by continuing rapid growth in North India. China is likely to ease up on its policy after the current rather large group of women in the childbearing ages moves up the age ladder. We also have to remember that projections tend to assume that all developing countries will follow the path of developed countries down to where couples average less than two children. I think the jury is still out on that one.

charlie teller: Carl and Mary, Some of the largest countries in the world (China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Brasil, eg.) are experiencing internal demographic divides based on rural-urban and SES/education differentials in fertility, thus lacking important fertility reductions among the rural poor. Do you know any large developing countries which are narrowing poverty and residence gap (eg., maybe Tanzania, Mexico), and how are they doing it? Can orderly internal migration/population redistribution policies assist?
Mary Mederios Kent: The gaps in contraceptive use and fertility levels within countries have declined in some areas, according to data from successive Demographic Health Surveys. The declines that come to mind are in Latin America, which is much more urbanized than the countries you mentioned. It will probably take longer in countries like Ethiopia that are largely rural. I don’t know if population redistribution policies can aid in this—they often try to move people from one rural area to another, and generally have not been very successful. However, movement between urban and rural areas probably helps lower the gap between these areas by disseminating information about family planning and the advantages of smaller families. In general reducing poverty and increasing education, along with expanding access to health services, will reduce the gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural, with a country. But these will be long-term efforts.

Mizanur Rahman: Population momentum is a major cause of high population growth in many developing countries like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Are there any programs in these countries that can deal with it? Do you have any suggestions?
Carl Haub: Momentum, or the fact that populations continue to grow after reaching the “two child family,” is just a simple and unavoidable mathematical fact. Fertility decline in developing countries, unlike in the developed, has been very rapid so that a large number of womn in the childbearing ages remain. Those women will continue to have a relatively large number of births even at an average of two and there will even be “baby boom echoes” over the generations. The only way it could be dealt with is emigration.

For further information: 2008 World Population Data Sheet.