|Reducing Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Development
At the Millennium Summit in 2000, the international community committed itself to an ambitious goal: to cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. In the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world’s leaders adopted a series of time-bound and quantified targets—on hunger; education; gender equality and women’s empowerment; health; environmental sustainability; and aid, trade and development—to attack poverty’s root causes.
The scale of the challenges, and the benefits of success—to individuals, communities and the family of nations—are enormous.
- Some 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day. Another 2.7 billion struggle to survive on less than $2 a day.
- 852 million people are chronically or acutely malnourished, some 300 million of them children. Every year 11 million children die before their fifth birthday.
- 40 million people are infected with HIV. In 2004, some 3.1 million people died of AIDS, including 500,000 children under 15. AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Life expectancy at birth in the least developed countries is 51, compared to 76 in richer countries.
- 114 million children do not get a basic education, and 584 million women are illiterate.
Global population is expected to increase from 6.5 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, and the population of the 50 poorest countries will more than double to reach 1.7 billion. Almost all of the net increase in population is occurring in developing countries, and in many of them, the number of people living in poverty is rising.
A central premise of the Cairo Consensus was that the size, growth, age structure and rural-urban distribution of a country’s population have a critical impact on its development prospects and on the living standards of the poor. Poverty is multidimensional: the poor are deprived of services, resources and opportunities, as well as income. The ICPD realized that investing in people, empowering individual women and men with education, equal opportunities and the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children could create the conditions to allow the poor to break out of the poverty trap.
There is substantial evidence that slower population growth and investments in reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention (particularly among adolescents), education, women’s empowerment and gender equality reduce poverty. Carrying out the Programme of Action adopted at the International Conference Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and reaching its goal of universal access to reproductive health information and services by 2015 is an essential condition for achieving the MDGs.
The countries where poverty levels are the highest are generally those that have the most rapid increases in population and the highest fertility levels. Countries that have reduced fertility and mortality by investing in universal health care, including reproductive health, as well as education and gender equality, have made economic gains. A 2001 study of 45 countries, for example, found that if they had reduced fertility by five births per 1,000 people in the 1980s, the average national incidence of poverty of 18.9 per cent in the mid-1980s would have been reduced to 12.6 per cent between 1990 and 1995.
How do investments in reproductive health, eduction and gender equality reduce poverty?
- Enabling people to have fewer children contributes to upward mobility and helps to stimulate development. When women can negotiate their reproductive health decisions with men, this exercise of their rights leads to an increased decision-making role within families and communities that benefits all.
- Because smaller families share income among fewer people, average per-capita income increases.
- Fewer pregnancies lead to lower maternal mortality and morbidity and often to more education and economic opportunities for women. These, in turn, can lead to higher family income.
- As women become more educated, they tend to have fewer children, and participate more in the labour market.
- Families with lower fertility are better able to invest in the health and education of each child. Spaced births and fewer pregnancies overall improve child survival.
- Sexual and reproductive health services are key to curbing HIV. The pandemic is killing large numbers of people in their most productive years, increasing the ratio of dependents to the working-age population. If 15 per cent of a country’s population is HIV-positive (a level nine countries are expected to reach by 2010), gross domestic product declines by about 1 per cent each year. Preventing AIDS-related disabilities and premature deaths translates into a healthier, more productive labour force that can improve a country’s economic prospects
- Many developing countries have large youth populations. Reproductive health programmes that address the greater vulnerability of adolescents to unprotected sex, sexual coercion, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, unintended early pregnancies and unsafe abortions, and enable young women to delay pregnancy and marriage are important factors in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
- Investments in reproductive health, particularly in family planning, that result in lowered fertility can open a one-time only 'demographic window' of economic opportunity.
Lower fertility and slower population growth temporarily increase the relative size of the workforce, opening an historic, one-time only demographic window. With fewer dependent children and older dependents relative to a larger, healthier working-age population, countries can make additional investments that can spur economic growth and help reduce poverty. Within another generation, the window closes again, as the population ages and dependency increases once more. If jobs are generated for the working population, this demographic bonus results in higher productivity, savings and growth. In East Asia, where poverty has dropped dramatically, this demographic bonus is estimated to account for about one third of the region’s unprecedented economic growth from 1965 to 1990. In the poorest countries, where fertility remains high, the demographic window will not open for some time, but investments now in reproductive health services can hasten its arrival and ensure future dividends.
Page last updated: 15 December 2005