A DECADE ago, the North African nation of Morocco was sagging under the weight of a problem familiar to every developing nation: explosive population growth.
Determined to wrest the future from the grip of overpopulation, the government and various private groups launched a campaign to deliver contraceptives and family planning advice to the doorsteps of millions of Moroccan women. Despite a poor economy and high levels of illiteracy, the results have been impressive: Contraceptive use in the conservative Muslim nation has risen to 40 percent, while the average number of children per woman has plunged from 7 in 1980 to 4.5 today.
Morocco's population problems are not yet solved. But, according to a report released today by the Population Crisis Committee, it is one of five third-world nations that have demonstrated the possibilities for coping with runaway population growth. In different ways, says the report, each has disproved the notion that poor nations are helpless in the face of threatening demographic trends. "These five success stories debunk the myths that population growth is an intractable problem against which world l eaders are powerless or that fertility declines must await major social and economic transitions in the third world," says the report. India, Colombia, Morocco, and Kenya are among the most dramatic success stories of 1991, according to the report, while the Philippines, Malawi, Saudi Arabia, and Haiti are among the least successful. Thailand and US reverse course
Two other countries with historically opposite fertility statistics have reversed course. In the United States, average family size has increased from 1.8 to 2.1 since 1988. The resulting 2.7 million population increase expected in 1992 is nearly one-third higher than the average 2 million annual increases recorded during the 1980s. In Thailand, by contrast, family planning programs have help reduced average family size from 6.2 in 1970 to 2.2 in 1991. One difference is government support for family-plan ning efforts, which has grown in Thailand and some other developing countries but which has diminished in the US because of pressure from powerful anti-abortion groups. Last year the US Supreme Court upheld prohibition in federally-funded clinics of discussion of abortion as a means of birth control.
Population groups point to a 1985 decision to cut funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which supports family planning programs in 140 countries, as another example of the low priority the US now gives to population issues.
According to the PCC report, the major obstacles to effective family planning efforts are plodding third-world bureaucracies, political turmoil, religious opposition, and - as in Saudi Arabia - actual support for high levels of fertility.
In addition to strong government support, the report says, the most important asset in effective family planning is close cooperation between the government and private family-planning groups. Family-planning efforts have also been boosted by an expanded range of contraceptive technologies, including injectable contraceptives now in use in some developing countries. Population groups are closely monitoring the 1990s, which they describe as a critical decade. They say that unless family-planning services are made universally available during the decade, there will be no hope of stabilizing world population at a level below 10 billion.
Without increased contraceptive use and lower fertility rates, world population could reach 15 billion before leveling off sometime after the end of the 21st century. World population is now 5.4 billion. It is growing by 90 million - roughly equivalent to one-third the of the US population - per year, the highest annual increase in recorded history. Advocates of family planning warn that such growth rates imperil the environment, the quality of human life, and political stability around the globe.