Fertility Rates Decline In Third-World Nations
BEHIND the stark reality that the world's population surges by 11,000 every hour of every day, there are hopeful new developments.Skip to next paragraph
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Across most of the developing world, a quiet revolution is taking place that marks the beginning of the end of an era of unprecedented population growth. Using new technology and innovative advertising campaigns, governments and private groups have begun tapping into a huge latent desire for smaller families.
The result, a sharp increase in the use of contraceptives and a corresponding decrease in the size of the average family, has far surpassed the expectations of population experts. A dramatic success story, it is one of the singular developments of the postwar era.
"Once the world got serious about offering quality family-planning services, fertility declined rapidly," says Joseph Speidel, president of the Population Crisis Committee in Washington. "The trend belies the notion that population growth is an intractable problem or that fertility declines depend on major economic and social changes."
Among the large global community of population experts, satisfaction is tempered by the recognition that, for now, lower fertility translates only into slower growth rates, not an actual decline in world population, which is not expected for a century or more. Indeed, says a United Nations report, "four decades of the fastest growth in human numbers in all history" lie ahead.
"Things aren't as bad as they would have been, but they're still getting worse," says Philip Claxton, a former State Department adviser, who was the first special assistant on population issues.
An era of declining birth rates began during the 1960s and '70s when national leaders first grasped the implications of overpopulation on economic development and living standards.
Armed with two revolutionary new contraceptives, the birth-control pill and the intrauterine device (IUD), dozens of fledgling public and private family-planning agencies launched forth with an equally revolutionary message: Family size is a matter of choice, not fate.
The results have been dramatic. Worldwide, contraceptive use has jumped from 8 to 50 percent since the 1960s.
In turn, fertility rates - that is, the average number of children per family - have dropped from 6.1 to 3.9 in the developing world, halfway to a "replacement" level of 2.1 per couple, which is approximated in many industrialized nations, according to the World Health Organization.
Achieving the other half will be more difficult: The rate of decline has slowed since the 1980s.
Abetted by strong economic growth, fertility declines have been sharpest in East Asia. Largely excluded from the trend has been sub-Saharan Africa, where women still bear an average of six children and less than 5 percent of whom, in many countries, use modern contraceptives, according to estimates by Macro International in Silver Spring, Md., an organization that does fertility and family-planning surveys.
With 25 years of experience in hand, family-planning experts say the keys to success are easy to identify and frequently transferable.
The most critical variable is consistent, visible support for family planning by political leaders.
"The main element of success is commitment from the top," says John Bongaarts, research director of the Population Council in New York. "Leaders have to be on TV repeatedly saying, `Overpopulation is bad for us.' "