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Democracies, demographics and the MDGs

This morning I attended the launch of the update of an influential 2007 report on population growth and the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). The report was put together by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (APPGs are groupings of MPs from all parties interested in a specific issue). The launch was held in a room adjacent to Westminster Hall in the House of Commons – it’s certainly a privilege to escape the modern office and attend a meeting in a venue that is pregnant with history and the ideal of democracy. Indeed pregnancy and democracy were at the heart of this morning’s discussions.

It is widely accepted that the achievement of the MDGs is central to reducing global poverty and promoting development. This morning’s evidence was incontrovertible however – at current levels of population growth the MDGs will be impossible to achieve. In the second half of the 20th century the world’s population grew from under 3 billion to over 6 billion; the UN predicts that it will surpass 9 billion by 2050. 99% of this growth will take place in developing countries, the vast majority of it among the poorest populations. This is undermining development in many different ways: accelerating the loss of environmental resources, for example, creating an explosion of urban slums and leaving increasing numbers of people facing water shortages (already a severe problem in India). The impact on health is very significant – high fertility rates are directly related to increased child and maternal mortality, issues that are central to Save the Children’s work.

The solution doesn’t require rocket science: greater prioritisation of and investment in sexual and reproductive health services, in particular family planning, is a very cost-effective way of addressing the problem of population growth. The evidence also shows that this is what people want – large families are usually not the choice of the poor but a result of their inability to access information and the services that will help them manage their family size.

Countries that have successfully followed this approach – not least here in the West – have also recorded other gains, including economic growth and an improvement in the status of women. Given the overwhelming evidence of the problem and the simplicity of the solution, it was shocking to hear that the challenges remain enormous: popular and media interest is low; governments in countries with rapidly growing populations have largely failed to act; and donor governments continue to ignore the problem, so that funding for family planning services remains a drop in the overseas aid ocean. Hopefully this morning’s launch will galvanise the public, press, governments and aid agencies to take action – decisions made today will determine not just the future level of the world’s population but also the future of development itself.

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