Family planning, which saw a relative decline in financial support from the international development community over the last two decades, is now back in vogue, thanks in large part to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After spearheading the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012 alongside many governments, the foundation’s recently released 2014 Annual Letter sets out to dispel three “myths” about development, one of which is “saving lives leads to overpopulation.”
Melinda Gates calls for a reframing of development discourse and practice around population. “The fact is that a laissez faire approach to development – letting children die now so they don’t starve later – doesn’t actually work, thank goodness,” she writes. “It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most deaths have among the fastest-growing populations in the world.” According to Gates, a better approach is renewed investment in contraceptive access and education.
A correlation between high child mortality and high fertility seems to suggest that “when children survive in greater numbers, parents decide to have smaller families,” writes Gates. Over time, reduced population growth rates can create the opportunity for a “demographic dividend” in which countries reap economic and other benefits associated with a larger proportion of working-age adults. Governments can help realize these benefits by working with international donors to prioritize access to family planning and create policies that exploit the opportunities offered by demographic transitions, says Gates.
Hans Rosling, a renowned statistician and one of Melinda Gates’ “favorite data geeks,” reinforces this message in one of his trademark video presentations. Rosling cites United Nations figures indicating that the world’s poorest families have five children on average, one of whom dies, while better off families have only two children. According to Rosling, as families emerge from extreme poverty they no longer need to compensate for child mortality by having as many children, and large families are no longer seen as economic necessities or status symbols. Thus, “ending population growth starts by saving the poorest children.” Action must be swift, however, given a projected global population increase of as many as four billion by the end of the century.
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