Has the World Progressed or Regressed, 30 Years After a Landmark Population Conference?

India has surpassed China as the world's most populous country. Credit: Unsplash/Andrea Leopardi
  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the Conference articulated “a bold new vision about the relationships between population, development and individual well-being.”

The forward-looking PoA (extended in 2010), “continues to serve as a comprehensive guide to people-centred development progress,” and “was remarkable in its recognition that reproductive health and rights, as well as women's empowerment and gender equality, are cornerstones of population and development programmes,” said UNFPA

Joseph Chamie, a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and Deputy Secretary-General of ICPD, told IPS enormous demographic changes have occurred since the ICPD.

“However, the world continues to face significant population and development challenges. Among those challenges are population growth, illegal immigration, mortality rates, gender equality, global warming and environmental degradation”, he pointed out.

World population, he said, increased from 5.7 billion in 1994 to 8.1 billion in 2024, with half of today’s world population being born after ICPD.

The annual growth rate of the world’s population has declined from 1.5 percent in 1994 to 0.9 percent in 2024.

However, he predicted, world population is expected to increase by another 2.0 billion people by around mid-century when it is projected to reach 10 billion.

Most of the additional 2.0 billion people, expected by mid-century, will be in developing countries, with high rates of population growth among African countries, Chamie said.

Meanwhile, the 8th International Parliamentarians’ Conference, scheduled to take place from 10 to 12 April in Oslo, Norway, aims to promote dialogue among parliamentarians, from all regions of the world. on the implementation of the PoA.

The setting is designed to generate global political consensus around sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to create tangible national outcomes in policy, funding and accountability.

The conference is organized by the Norwegian All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and UNFPA.

On the positive side, Chamie said, significant improvements have been made in infant and child mortality and life expectancies at birth for both men and women as well as at older ages.

Women and men have gained greater control over the number and spacing of their children. Global fertility rate dropped from about 3 births per woman in 1994 to 2.3 births per woman in 2024 and is expected to reach the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman by mid-century.

The world’s population has become markedly older, increasing from a median age of 24 years in 1994 to 31 years today and is expected to reach 36 years by midcentury. The age structures of many countries are older than they have ever been with the proportion elderly at record highs.

But illegal immigration continues to increase with receiving countries struggling with policies and programs to address the increasing numbers.

“Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls remains a critical population challenge for countries, especially among developing countries”, he said.

Despite the global improvements in mortality rates and health conditions, significant troubling differences persist both within and across countries.

Global warming and environmental degradation are creating serious demographic and development challenges for countries, especially for the populations of less developed regions, said Chamie, who has worked in various regions of the world, and is the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Population Levels, Trends, and Differentials".

Meanwhile, of the world’s most populous nations, the two countries ranked at the top are from Asia: India and China, with over 1.4 billion people each, far ahead of the US, the third most populous nation, with over 340 million people.

Asked how far the Asia-Pacific region has progressed since 1994, Srinivas Tata, Director, Social Development Division at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) told IPS there have been significant achievements in poverty eradication, education, nutrition, sanitation and health.

“These changes are a cause for celebration”.

“But now, the region stands at a crossroads. Emerging demographic trends, such as low fertility, population ageing, increased migration, gender inequality and lack of empowering women – coupled with the challenges of socioeconomic inequalities and vulnerabilities, and the impact of climate change, disasters, conflicts, the COVID-19 pandemic and digital transformation – call for urgent action,” he said.

Moreover, progress has been uneven both within and among countries, and the benefits of social and economic progress have not been shared equitably.

The ICPD PoA, he said, places people at the centre of sustainable development. Moreover, population dynamics were recognized as drivers and outcomes of sustainable development, he said.

“Member States noted that rather than immediate demographic fixes to address social and economic challenges, forward-looking policies, that respect the dignity, rights and choices of all people without compromising the needs of future generations were needed”.

Investments in women and girls, such as those related to education and health and ensuring they had urgency, and a voice, were crucial and would benefit all aspects of society.

In 2010, Tata pointed out, UN Member States acknowledged the many achievements in implementing the PoA. They also noted the gaps that still existed.

Initially considered to have a 20-year time horizon, they therefore extended it indefinitely. This assessment still applies today. A rights-based approach to inclusive and sustainable development with people at its centre is needed to ensure that no one is left behind, now and in the future, he noted.

In Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP, in partnership with UNFPA convened the Seventh Asian and Pacific Population Conference in November of 2023. Members States reaffirmed their commitment to the ICPD PoA.

“In an increasingly interconnected and “uncertain” world, regional cooperation and partnership and a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach is key to inclusive and sustainable development”.

In the future, he argued, demographic foresight and rights-based approaches should guide planning and policymaking. Thus, the ICPD PoA remains relevant and complements the 2030 Agenda.

ESCAP, and its regional partners stand ready to support member States and non-government stakeholders to accelerate its implementation, he declared.

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