Friday, May 27, 2011

UN Population Projections Force Policy Change

We’ve alluded to the UN’s latest population predictions a couple of times already in the last couple of weeks here on Mercatornet. Our editor, Michael Cook, wrote a great article on population decline in which he mentioned the problems with the UN’s predictions and linked to Fred Pearce’s fairly scathing analysis of the UN’s models.

The major problem with the UN’s approach is that it has revised upwards the projected growth rates of the world from its predictions in 2008 despite the fact that the current actual world population and growth rates are lower than that predicted two years ago. So in effect the UN has predicted that the future growth rates will be higher than it predicted at a time when the actual growth rate and population was higher. The trend is down, expect in the projections. It appears that the UN in 2008 assumed that world fertility was heading inexorably towards 1.85 children per woman; while in its latest projections the number has been revised upwards to 2.1 children per woman – the population replacement level. As Pearce states:

“The assumption now is that countries with higher fertility rates will fall to the 2.1 figure and not below, while those below will rise to reach it.”

This is despite the fact that there is no known case of a population growth rate declining to replacement level and remaining there. It also seems a big stretch to see European countries, Japan and China raising their fertility levels to 2.1 anytime soon. Thus, the UN seems to be making some fairly problematic assumptions in its global population projections. Pearce argues that the UN should explain why the higher level of 2.1 children per woman was imposed upon the projection model.

This is the problem with treating the pronouncements of the UN as gospel. It is a political organisation made up of fallible humans which has its own agenda to run. However, in pushing its agenda, the UN is using its flawed projections to justify its position. As we can see in this BBC story about Nigeria.

According to the UN’s projections, the population of Nigeria will reach 730 million by 2100 and will be the third largest in the world behind China's and India's. The UN special adviser Jeffrey Sachs is “alarmed” by this projection. (Although Chinwuba Iyizoba would disagree.) Mr Sachs told the AFP news agency that:

“It is not healthy. Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family".

The Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria agrees with this goal of course. (As an aside, isn’t the idea of Planned Parenthood to help people “plan” their parenthood, whether they want to have three or thirteen children? Isn’t supporting an “optimum” number of children somewhat dictatorial?)

So, we have a UN official arguing for a policy (interestingly, a policy that China seems to be moving away from) based upon the UN population projection that has some serious question marks hanging over it. Does this perhaps give us an insight as to why the projection was revised to include the 2.1 figure? After all, it's easier to get countries to enforce a change in policy which you advocate when you can scare them with the consequences if they don’t follow your advice. I can’t help but think that there will be more stories like this in the near future – some country is projected to become hugely overpopulated by the UN, therefore that country must indulge in some sort of population control policy advocated by the UN. Does the projeciton justify the policy, or does the policy justify the revised projection?

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