Population Matters

Poverty & development

Poverty & development

Poverty and inequality are both widespread. While the number of people living in poverty is falling, inequality is increasing. Both contribute to, and are increased by, large family size. Addressing poverty and other contributors to large family size, particularly the lack of women’s rights as well as sexual and reproductive health and rights, is necessary in order to turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one.


More than a tenth of the world’s population live in extreme poverty today. These are the same people who are most at risk from the threats of environmental damage, climate change and the consequent loss of resources.

800 million people live in extreme poverty
800 million people live in extreme poverty

Extreme poverty can often be found in developing parts of the world. Some developing countries may also experience a poverty trap, where poor people have large families to counter high levels of child mortality and to sustain them in their old age. At societal level, however, the resultant overall numbers of population together with limited resources can condemn their people to ongoing poverty.

Concerted action is called for on the part of the developed world. Humanitarian assistance and development aid to provide education, encourage female empowerment and ensure access to family planning resources are necessary to help developing countries break out of their poverty trap.

Social justice

Other countries are developing unevenly, with huge numbers of extremely poor people living alongside pockets of urbanised modernity. For some people, particularly in rural areas, large families remain a way of boosting the family’s ability to generate income. However, this is becoming less true as population growth limits available per capita land resources.

For others, a desire for fewer children is frustrated as a lack of health and transport infrastructure limits access to the reliable supplies of contraception they need. On the other hand, children may be a parent’s only form of security in old-age. Where poverty results in a high rate of infant mortality, this is a further incentive for people to have more rather than fewer children.

Inequalities of wealth are significant and growing, both between countries and within both rich and poor countries.

People migrating

When communities are very poor they are less able to afford reproductive health services. In addition, people are more likely to want several children to support them in old age and to help generate income, though this can be counter-productive if their well-being is really limited by the amount of land or water available to grow crops.

Large differences in prosperity between countries drive people to migrate. Large-scale migration can undermine the stability of the destination country and deplete the country of origin of scarce skills.

In more prosperous countries most people have sufficient to meet their basic human needs. Once this has been achieved, further consumption increases well-being only at a diminishing rate. There is evidence to show that when people see others enjoying things they can’t afford themselves it can make them unhappy, even if the things involved don’t directly add anything tangible to their well-being.

In a very unequal society, especially where the super-rich are conspicuously affluent, people will aspire to an unsustainable “celebrity lifestyle”. This reduces happiness and increases the overall level of consumption when there simply are not the resources available for large numbers to live in such a manner.


Each year of school-attendance cuts the Nigerian birth rate by one tenth
Each year of school-attendance cuts the Nigerian birth rate by one tenth

There is a widespread but mistaken view that “development is the best contraceptive.” As people become richer they do tend to have fewer children, but the causal links work the other way — people in very few countries so far have managed a steady increase in prosperity until they have reduced very high fertility rates.

There is a theory that women need much better education as a precondition for reducing their fertility. More educated girls do tend to have fewer children, but this is not a precondition, as family planning programmes implemented among illiterate women in Bangladesh and a number of other countries have shown.


The United Kingdom All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health report Return of the Population Growth Factor, which was published in 2007, showed clearly that rapid population growth was a major obstacle to economic development.

19 million people in the UK are living in poverty
19 million people in the UK are living in poverty

Just as every mother living on US $1 per day knows her children will be better fed if there are four round the table rather than 10, every education minister knows he could build more colleges if any increase in his budget was not immediately swallowed up by the need to build ever more primary schools for the ever-growing new cohorts. Thus family planning contributes more to development than vice versa.

Greater prosperity in a more stable population may very well increase environmental impacts more quickly than rapidly increasing numbers of very poor people, but nobody can reasonably deny the impoverished the right to escape from poverty. This is why we strongly support contraction and convergence.

Of course developing countries should also be supported in adopting environmentally sustainable technology. Nevertheless, the basic fact remains that countries with fewer people have a better chance of a decent life for everyone than they would with ever-increasing numbers.

Read more about poverty.

Next: Sustainable technologies