Don’t panic

Don’t panic 

When it comes to population growth, world-renown statistician and global health expert Hans Rosling has one piece of advice for infrastructure planners and developers: don’t panic.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of watching Hans Rosling – a dynamic and charismatic Professor of International Health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and co-founder of Gapminder – will know why Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2012. Armed with amazing visualizations and graphics created through the Trendalyzer software developed by his son and daughter-in-law (which Google acquired in 2007), Prof. Rosling brings statistics alive to paint a different – and likely much more accurate – vision of our current and future population challenges. Stephen Beatty, America’s and India Head of Global Infrastructure, had the opportunity to sit down with Prof. Rosling to discuss ‘all things population’.

Putting population myths to bed

According to Prof. Rosling, the first thing the world’s urban planners and governments must do is realign their preconceived ideas about population growth. In particular, there are three big myths that need to be debunked. The first is that population forecasts and predictions are wild guesses or based on incomplete – or even manipulated – data.

“In 1958, the UN population division made their first estimate on the size of the world population, which went out to the year 2000, and they hit the mark to within about 4 percentage points; remarkable accuracy for a 42 year forecast,” noted Prof. Rosling. “The reality is – with the addition of modern technology – we can now tell quite well what will happen with population growth in the future.”

The second myth is that high death rates in the poorest countries provide a form of population control. In every part of the world, notes Prof. Rosling, health and survival has improved with the introduction of modern medicine and sanitation, and as a result mortality has greatly decreased. In fact today it is the countries with the highest rates of child mortality – the Democratic Republic of Congo for example – that also have the fastest population growth rates. And since births outnumber deaths right around the world, countries like the Congo and Afghanistan are seeing population size double in a generation as parents bring an average of five to six children into the world and lose only one to two.

Somewhat interrelated, the third great myth is that there is this ‘developing world’ where women have five to six babies each. Nonsense, says Prof. Rosling. “There are nine states in India with a combined population of 500 million where, on average, women have two babies or less each. Today Iran and Brazil both have lower birth rates than the US and Sweden, yet many seem to assume that it’s only a vaguely defined group of ‘Western’ countries that have sustainable birth rates.”

The filling up effect

So while the world population will likely grow by another four billion before it stabilizes, Prof. Rosling notes that this is not due to more children being born. In fact, the number of children born globally is expected to hit a peak this year at around 130 million. The additional billions will all therefore be adults, he suggests.

“It takes one lifetime, 70 years, for population size to stabilize once the two child family has become a norm and there are so many countries where this has only just started to happen,” explained Prof. Rosling. “As a result, much of the population growth that we will see over the next century will essentially be the result of the population filling up while the number of children in the world will no longer increase.” So while there will still be more children in Africa, this will be balanced in Asia and Europe where the number of children will decrease at around the same rate.

The blessing of urbanization

What is certainly true is the common belief that much of the future population growth will occur within cities. All of the growth illustrated by Gapminder will occur in urban areas while the rural population in the world will remain largely stable on average.

But, according to Prof. Rosling, urbanization is an undeniable blessing for most people. “We should be trying harder to bring people into cities where they can be exposed to modern thinking, have opportunities for jobs, access to contraception and better education and healthcare; that’s when we see young families quickly choose to have only two children,” added Prof. Rosling.

Make no mistake; the way out of extreme poverty will be anything but beautiful over the next two generations or so. “The women who get away from the rural villages in Bangladesh to work in urban textile mills don’t have a beautiful life per se, but for the vast majority it is a better life than the stark ugliness of extreme poverty and personal limitations that they endure in rural areas.”

However, Prof. Rosling shows that family sizes drop not because of a country’s economic growth but rather because of smart policy decisions and investments in public service. “In part, it’s about taking away extreme poverty where children are needed just to collect firewood and water,” he noted. “But it’s also about vaccinating children against disease, improving literacy, encouraging urbanization and educating people about contraception and making it accessible, those are policy matters.”

He points to Ethiopia where such policy measures have helped reduce fertility rates in the capital, Addis Ababa, to just 1.6 babies born per woman, or Bangladesh where access to contraception and better education has slowed the fertility rate down to 2.2 children born per woman. Similar measures in Iran and Turkey have worked so well that leaders in both countries are now starting to worry that they will not be able to replace their population over the coming century.

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Preparing for 10 billion

Based on the UN Population Division´s data, Prof. Rosling explains that the only thing that governments, planners and the public at large can do is prepare for a world population of 10 billion. “We’ve studied the data and we know with precision where the population will experience shifts over the next century – these are facts,” adds Prof. Rosling. “It is much better to be proactive and prepare for these shifts than it is to ignore them; we can’t ignore, for example, that the number of city dwellers around the world will double this century, from 3.5 billion to around 7 billion.”

To achieve a decent (if not ‘good’) life for all of these people, Prof. Rosling suggests that government, civil society and the private sector will need to contribute with innovative solutions that help integrate the expanding population into well-functioning urban societies. Technology, regulation and policy will play a part, but so too will initiatives such as the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, which brought together a range of private and public stakeholders to tackle the challenge of access to contraception in the developing world.

“It’s when the corporate sector starts using their power of innovation and development to catalyze government and civil society to proactively seek out a decent life for the increasing population that we will get good and peaceful societies,” he added.

For the size of the global population to stabilize, it will take a huge push against extreme poverty and access to health care, education and contraceptives in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and in the poorest parts of South Asia. “Everything is possible but nothing will happen automatically,” Prof. Rosling noted. “If you see how far we have already come, it makes the reality much easier to endure.”

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