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POPULATION: Promise Rises With a Problem

Sanjay Suri

ISTANBUL, May 10 2011 (IPS) - On the face of it, a rapidly rising population among the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) spells the usual doom about adequate resource distribution. But the least developed are also among the youngest in the world – and well channelled, they can be a valuable asset, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) head Babatunde Osotimehin told IPS.

“The population growth in the LDCs is higher than the growth in other developing countries,” Osotimehin said during the Fourth U.N. Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) here. “We are seeing a trend of 3 to 3.5 percent in the LDCs.” That is much more than in the developed world, and in other developing countries. “And to that extent we are contending with a situation where there are 900 million people in LDCs now, and if growth continues that way, in 2050 it would double to about 2 billion.”

Osotimehin acknowledges an established trend that, in most places, where the population growth is fast, poverty also goes up. “So we need to reverse the poverty cycle. And if you do, you invariably find that population growth also goes down.”

But as strongly emerging economies like China and India have found, more mouths to feed means also more hands to produce, and more minds to create. And what is working for India and China could work for the LDCs.

“It could be a demographic dividend for LDCs going forward, utilising the energy of young people to increase their productive base in every possible way,” says Osotimehin. “The Southeast Asian tigers grew with young people. Even in countries where populations seem to be shrinking, we are coming back to a situation where we are putting in place family programmes and policies to increase the base of young people.”

And in the LDCs, “if the right policies come into place for education, for health, for social inclusion, we would actually see productivity go up. On the other hand, if we don’t do those things in LDCs, what will happen is that you will have young children doing what their parents have done – have children and more children, so the cycle of poverty will just increase.”

That ‘if’ is for people and governments within the LDCs to handle. It was almost universally acknowledged at the conference of the LDCs being held here, that a fair worldwide trading system is necessary to enable these countries to shake off their unhappy tag.

Population growth and longevity are closely tied with the issues of growth and trade, says Osotimehin.

“In LDCs we are gaining some momentum in terms of longevity because we are beginning to look after those diseases that actually affect infant mortality, and maternal mortality, and we are contending with infectious diseases that tend to kill people and children so the cycle of poverty increases. It may not be happening as fast as we want to see, but it is happening.

“So that’s why we need to look at issues of population, because if people are living longer, the demands are also going to increase, the productive base would have to provide for those demands, and this has to be finely balanced.”

A new report from UNFPA, ‘Population Dynamics and Poverty in the LDCs: Challenges and Opportunities for Development and Poverty Reduction’ says investments in young people, women’s empowerment and reproductive health, including family planning, are critical to boosting LDCs productive capacity and speeding their escape from the cycle of poverty.

The report says the world’s 48 LDCs have a large and rapidly growing youth population, with some 60 percent of their population under the age of 25.

These young people, it says, can drive economic growth if they enjoy health, education and employment. Investments in young girls, often overlooked, could provide a significant development dividend, says the report.

“Empowering women and girls starts with improved access to reproductive health care and family planning,” Osotimehin says in the report. “Too many teenage girls become mothers, too many die giving birth, too many drop out of school, too many are abused and discriminated against in their daily lives.

“The investments would also reduce maternal death and lead to smaller families with more resources to pour into the health and education of each child. This virtuous cycle helps families, communities and nations escape poverty.”

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