The baby gap

Barbara Crossette was a New York Times correspondent in Asia and chief of the paper's U.N. bureau.

A new divide is opening between shortsighted industrialized societies and the world’s poorest countries. It’s all about babies.

In Japan, in Russia, in Germany and elsewhere in what development gurus like to call “the global North,” panic has set in about fertility declines, and couples are exhorted to have and are rewarded for producing more children. Economic growth demands it. Bigger retirement bills come due every year as populations age. A shrinking labor force spells disaster. So fascinated are we in the developed world with this phenomenon -- the scarcity of babies -- that a pervasive misinterpretation of world population trends has taken hold.

Here’s the reality: In a majority of nations, in the world’s most deprived societies, there is no shortage of babies. Women there are often crying out for help in controlling their fertility, sometimes to save themselves from early death as well as to give their children a better chance at life. As a young mother who had just discovered contraception told me in rural Laos, where the typical hardworking farm woman has at least five children at an early age, “By the time I made a meal for my family, I was too exhausted to eat.”

But when foreign aid priorities are set, family planning is no longer high on the list. It hasn’t been for decades, even before the focus and much of the money turned almost exclusively to the prevention and control of admittedly decimating diseases. The 1960s were the high point in family planning, when big budget allocations were available. Leaders of new nations emerging from colonialism, however, did not always want that kind of help, and influential development thinkers in richer countries came to accept that pushing family planning was a cultural or even political intrusion. Both sides say that now, when aid for women’s needs generally is at a low point, this has to be reconsidered.

President Bush thinks otherwise. He has just barred for the fifth year U.S. government contributions to the U.N. Population Fund, which does more work in more countries than any other family-planning organization. His action is based on unsubstantiated claims, denied by the United Nations, that the fund aids abortion in China. The U.S. is now $196 million in arrears.


Of the world’s 6.6 billion people, about 5.4 billion live in less developed countries. By 2025, the richer world will account for just over 1.25 billion of the projected global population of 7.9 billion; by 2050, the numbers will have risen only marginally for the industrial world, while 8 billion of the world’s 9.2 billion people will be in poor nations, according to figures just published by the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the United Nations, the World Bank and other institutions. (Full disclosure: I have written reports for the Population Reference Bureau, but not on this subject.)

To put it another way, almost all the population growth -- despite almost universal reductions in fertility -- will be among the people who already struggle hardest to survive, whose life expectancy is slipping in many places and who bear the heaviest burden of conflict and disease. Development unravels when caught in what Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, called the “poverty-fertility” trap.

Wait a minute, say those who see some silver lining in population growth for developing nations. There is the “demographic dividend.” A large, young, productive workforce boosts an economy, not unlike in the U.S., the only major industrial nation where substantial population growth continues, through a higher birth rate and immigration. That assumption, however, rests on an educated, healthy population. When families and public services are overwhelmed by numbers, a terrible cycle of underachievement goes into motion.

The exodus of desperate people from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia is a symptom of the crushing double burden of underdevelopment and overpopulation in places least able to cope. Environmental damage is near- catastrophic. In India, for example, nearly half the children are malnourished and no major city has running water 24 hours a day. Moreover, especially in Africa, a steady brain drain further cripples progress.

What is astonishing is the absence of important voices with new ideas for bridging the baby gap. Where are the bold international formulas (not just conferences) for tackling and balancing migration to serve both the North and South? Wouldn’t the world’s natural environment be better protected by offering more people a managed way to move to less-populated regions, perhaps through a new U.N. agency modeled on the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees? Wouldn’t it be better to help developing nations achieve workable population levels through family planning in the long term, while filling current gaps in the working-age population of rich nations through immigration? Shortsightedly, Europe and Japan seem to recoil at such thoughts. They would rather have more babies. Does the world really need them?