Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The UN World Population Fund, or UNFPA, said today in its annual report that controlling population growth is a key to reversing the worsening spiral of poverty in the world's poorest countries.
The UN World Population Report says that new research confirms long-held political-science theory that reducing fertility increases the ratio of working-age adults to children and allows more women to work, thus raising the overall productivity of a population. But, it says, this is a one-time phenomenon.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, UNFPA official Andre de Clercq explained: "The number of children diminishes while the active population augments, so that this active population that works -- and lower fertility also allows more women to work -- [can] have better earnings, can educate children better, and have better opportunities, then, for their children. And so this demographic window appears only once in the transition of a population," de Clercq said.
The UNFPA says the benefits of lowered fertility begin to dissipate as the adult generation ages and leaves the workforce, and the impact of a smaller pool of young people begins to be felt. But the economic improvement continues, provided that the countries invest wisely in health care and industrial development.
De Clercq said the research shows that this actually is happening in those countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that have taken appropriate steps to control their population growth. The agency says that fertility declines accounted for one-fifth of the economic growth in East Asia between 1960 and 1995.
The news is not all positive for developing countries' populations, however. UNFPA says that global population is projected to increase from 6.2 billion people now to 9.2 billion by 2050. It says that in that period the populations of the least-developed countries will triple, from 600 million to 1.8 billion.
Besides decreased fertility, the report says, improvements in health care and control of pandemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS are essential to economic improvement in poor countries.
The UN agency reports that the spread of HIV/AIDS goes along with poverty and is both a cause and an effect of poverty. It says that in some countries, it is wiping out a whole generation of wage earners.
De Clercq said that, in addition to African and South Asian countries, Russia, China, and India are at risk of economic collapse in the next five years if they fail to act to control pandemic diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.
There is hope, he said, and it comes down to a central issue: leadership. "Because basically, also, reducing HIV/AIDS is also an issue of leadership," de Clercq said.
He said that the ability of governments to control this and other pandemic diseases, like tuberculosis, will depend heavily on prevention. He said there is evidence not only of inadequate preventive measures and treatment but also of underreporting in China and Russia. The greatest enemies of prevention and control are ignorance and neglect.
De Clercq said, "In India also, some reports recently from UNAIDS show that in India, if they don't take the epidemic seriously, that it could have in five years' time the same [relative] number of HIV/AIDS-infected persons as in [sub-Saharan] Africa now."
The World Population Report says also that reducing poverty in developing countries will depend heavily on improving women's overall and reproductive health, as well as better family planning.
De Clercq, who earlier was a practicing gynecological surgeon, said that reproductive diseases have a horrifying impact on women in developing countries. "If a woman is pregnant in Africa, she has one chance in 20 to die during pregnancy. And compared to developed countries like the U.S.A. or [those in] Western Europe, it's one chance out of 3,000," de Clercq said.
And their own or their infants' deaths, de Clercq said, may not be the worst or the most feared effects of reproductive diseases upon mothers. In impoverished countries with poor health systems, he said, obstetric fistula is widespread.
This birth-related injury most often occurs with young girls who experience a long and difficult labor. With no access to medical care, the girl suffers extensive tissue damage to her birth canal and the baby usually dies.
The injury also leaves the women with no control over their bladder or bowels. Many such women find themselves abandoned by their husbands and families because of the stigma attached to the injury. There are an estimated 2 million cases of obstetric fistula worldwide.
De Clercq told of one mother who was both blind from cataracts in her eyes and a sufferer from obstetric fistula. Offered operations for both conditions, she asked for fistula correction first. Blindness, she said, was preferable to a life of physical misery and social stigma.