State of World Population, 50 Years Ago and Today

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) turns 50 this year. To mark the occasion, the multilateral agency’s annual State of World Population report includes a timeline of the agency’s work and the of events that shaped it into the organization it is today: an organization the United States isn’t funding under the Trump administration. In fact, the U.S. is the only country not contributing to UNFPA for non-budgetary reasons.

Trump is blaming his refusal to fund UNFPA on erroneous claims that the agency participates in coercive abortion and sterilization programs in China. Accusations of coercion have been around since George W. Bush was president. They have been consistently refuted by UNFPA, and were deemed unfounded by a three-person team that Bush himself sent to China to investigate[1] in 2002.

The Early Population Movement

UNFPA, like Population Connection, was founded at a time when talking about population pressures was not considered taboo, or even particularly provocative. All of the available evidence showed that rapid population growth was harming families, communities, economies, and wildlife habitats. Political leaders, social science and environment experts, and everyday Americans had the same concerns: that population growth would perpetuate poverty, destroy the environment, and lead to millions of deaths due to conflict, starvation, and severe pollution in the future.

The State of World Population therefore appropriately begins by addressing the unique demographic dynamics in play at the end of the 1960s:

It was 1969. World population reached 3.6 billion, up about 1 billion from only 17 years earlier. Fertility rates worldwide then were about double what they are today. In the least developed countries, fertility was about six births per woman.

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, released the year before, had incited a global panic about “overpopulation,” which the author predicted would lead to mass starvation on a “dying planet.”

It was in that context that UNFPA was established to advise developing countries about the social and economic implications of population growth and to support national population programmes, which began dispensing contraceptives on an unprecedented scale.

Of course, since that time, the rate of population growth and the total fertility rate have halved, the Green Revolution saved millions of people from otherwise certain starvation, and horrific human rights abuses in countries such as China, India, and Peru showed the world that voluntarism is perhaps the most crucial component of government-directed family planning programs.

It was with those new realities in mind that UN member states of the UN, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, rewrote the global guide to population and family planning programs, presented as the ICPD Programme of Action. The new steering document shifted the priority from national demographic targets to individual rights and wellbeing, from top-down population policies to education and services that empower people to make their own decisions. One wonders whether that shift was possible thanks to the groundwork for fertility decline having already being laid during the previous 25 years, but, regardless, it was time for a reorientation of the world’s mindset on reproductive autonomy.

Family Planning as a Human Right

Just as UNFPA does in its State of World Population report, Population Connection recognizes the sometimes-nefarious population control programs that were conducted in the name of population stabilization in the 20th century. While the presiding goal 50 years ago was to end population growth by urging couples to have fewer children, the goal has evolved to empower couples to have children if and when they want them, which would on its own bring an end to population growth during this century. The UN affirms access to modern family planning methods as a human right—a stance that our own programs work tirelessly to advance.

Talking about population trends and dynamics should be no more taboo than providing foreign assistance to the world’s largest and most effective provider of voluntary family planning. Population Connection is asking Congress to end the ban on UNFPA funding and to invest $111 million per year in its crucial programs and services. Will you join us?


[1] Search “United Nations Population Fund” to find relevant section of the 2003 Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriation Bill.

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