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World: Drop In Birthrate Eases Fears Of Population Boom

Demographers say a major change is under way in world population growth, with fertility rates dropping unexpectedly in many of the most populous developing countries. Participants in a United Nations conference on demography in March eased fears of a future global population explosion, saying that by 2050, birthrates in such countries will fall below the 2.1 children per woman required for population replacement. But experts also warn that, despite the slowdown, the world's population will continue to grow and is expected to reach some 9 billion by mid-century, with nearly all the growth taking place in less-developed countries.

Prague, 1 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Population experts have noted a surprising slowdown in fertility rates in a number of the world's most populous countries, and say the world's population is not growing as fast as previously thought.

Demographers from around the world met at a United Nations conference held on 11-14 March in New York. They said that over the next 50 years, the number of births in many developing countries is likely to fall below the 2.1 children per woman required to maintain long-term population stability.

The group cited for declining birthrates comprises 74 developing countries accounting for some 40 percent of the world population. They include some of the developing world's most populous states, like India, Indonesia, Iran, Brazil, Mexico, and Egypt.

Such countries have traditionally been categorized as having "intermediate-level" fertility rates -- that is, between 5 and 2.1 children per woman. Even once birthrates were seen to be dropping, it was believed that population in these countries would reach the replacement rate and stabilize at zero growth.

Demographers say the current slowdown in the intermediate-level countries is consistent with the so-called "demographic transition" trend -- the shift from high birth- and death rates to relatively low levels in both categories.

But while such transitions have unfolded over long periods in the Western world, they are taking place at a much faster pace in developing countries.

Europe has experienced 45 consecutive years of gradual decline in fertility, from some 2.66 children per woman in 1955-60 to an estimated 1.34 in 2000-05.

In many developing countries, rates are falling considerably faster -- from some six births per woman less than 40 years ago to just over 2.5 today. Furthermore, that decline is occurring in poor countries in contradiction to the general opinion that fertility rates drop only after societies get richer.

Experts say that despite poverty, many countries have made steps toward emancipation and better education.

Joseph Chamie, director of the UN Population Division, says the decline in fertility is a result of many factors, such as the increased availability of modern contraceptives, better health care and education, and the rapid growth of urban areas.

Chamie tells RFE/RL that both men and women are increasingly choosing to have smaller families so that they can enjoy a modern lifestyle, with more and more women choosing to work rather than take care of large families.

"And also, men and women want to have a lifestyle that's more compatible with what they see on TV, what they read in the papers or hear on the radio -- you know, conveniences, enjoying the weekend, leisure time and so on. All these can be done [while] at the same time having a small family and having women participate equally in the society by permitting people to choose the number and spacing of the children. And as we see, when given the choice, they're choosing to have smaller families," Chamie says.

Chamie also says that lower infant mortality has reduced the need for larger families. People in developing countries, Chamie says, now prefer to have fewer children and invest more in their education.

But despite a decline in the number of births in intermediate-fertility countries, the population in these countries will continue to grow until they reach the two-children threshold.

Chamie says India -- the world's second-most-populous country, with over 1 billion people and a fertility level of more than 3 children per woman -- alone contributes one-fifth of the world population's growth each year. This is more than the next three countries -- China, Pakistan, and Nigeria -- combined.

The world's high-fertility countries, most of which are in Africa, will be further adding to the world's population. Experts estimate population figures worldwide will grow from the current 6.1 billion to some 9.3 billion by mid-century -- a 50 percent increase.

Still, Chamie says, this is short-term growth. General population trends are showing declining numbers, and this should be taken as a positive sign.

"It's going to take many decades before we stop [population growth], and we guess we will have at least 2-3 billion more people by mid-century. But the good news, as I say, is that increasingly, couples in the intermediate-fertility countries are choosing smaller family sizes according to their own wishes," Chamie says.

But some experts are less optimistic. John Cleland, director of London's Center for Population Studies, describes the anticipated population growth over the next half-century as "colossal" and says it will cause problems that will counter any benefits of a long-term reduction in fertility rates.

"Whatever happens to fertility, we're in for another 50 years of colossal population growth. And my own belief is that this extra 3-billion-people increase -- all, or nearly all, of which is going to be in the poor countries of the world -- is going to pose really serious problems. And that, to me, is a much more important message than the message coming out of New York a couple of weeks ago that fertility in some countries may dip below two [births per woman]."

However, Cleland believes there are some good trends as well. He points to the expected upturn in the number of births in low-fertility countries in Western and Eastern Europe -- notably France, which has already seen its birthrate begin to grow.

"I think the UN expects a slight upturn in fertility in those countries of Europe which now have very low fertility. That would include Italy, Spain, Germany, and much of Eastern Europe, where levels are well below 1.5 births per woman. I believe the UN expects it to pick up a little, to a level of between 1.5 and two births per woman," Cleland says.

Chamie of the UN Population Division says each country or region is likely to experience a different pattern in population growth. But, he adds, current trends indicate the world's population will peak sooner than expected -- in some 150 years -- and at a lower level than previously thought.

But analysts warn that overoptimistic assessments may cause policymakers to relax family-planning efforts prematurely. They estimate that funds for family planning worldwide currently amount to some $5 billion -- only half of what is actually needed.