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Sometime around the end of October 2011, the world welcomed its seven billionth inhabitant. From a historical perspective, that milestone was reached in a very short time: it took over 50,000 years for the world population to reach its first billion, but the last two have been added in barely 25 years. Even if the speed of population growth continues to slow down, as it has done since the 1960s, the world population is likely to continue rising over this century. The United Nations projects that by 2050 the world population may be anywhere between 8.1 billion and 10.6 billion persons.

 Seven Billion and Growing: A 21st-Century Perspective on Population

In order to inform and stimulate business and political leaders, the Global Agenda Council on Population Growth produced a report entitled Seven Billion and Growing: A 21st-Century Perspective on Population. This report was launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 in Davos-Klosters during a session entitled “Seven Billion and Counting: Dividend and Disaster”. The event was moderated by David E. Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, USA; Member of the Global Agenda Council on Ageing Society, with contributions from:

  •  Karl Hofmann, President and Chief Executive Officer, Population Services International (PSI), USA
  • Michael Mack, Chief Executive Officer, Syngenta International, Switzerland
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance of Nigeria
  • Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), New York
  • N. K. Singh, Member of Parliament, India

The future size of the world population depends greatly on the speed of fertility decline in developing countries and, in particular, among those that still have high fertility. The figure below shows UN estimates of world population based on low-, medium- and high-fertility assumptions. If the world population surpasses 10 billion by 2050, it will very likely add several additional billions by the end of the century. To avoid that outcome, the 2050 population should remain close to nine billion. Actions taken today can shape the path that fertility follows in the future and, in the process, improve the lives of millions of women, their children and their families. In addition, speeding up the reduction of fertility in high-fertility countries will trigger changes in the age structure of their populations that are beneficial for development.

UN Projections of World Population under Three Fertility Assumptions

Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011). World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision,

 A Call for Action

Taking action to reduce population growth is all the more urgent because rapid population growth can magnify nearly every global problem and policy challenge that is scaled by population numbers.

First, although experts agree that there is sufficient food to feed everyone today, important changes need to take place to ensure food security for an additional two or three billion people, especially if increases in demand are driven both by larger numbers of consumers and by rising incomes.

Second, higher numbers of people will likely increase the impact of climate change. A larger world population will have a greater effect on global warming, even if low rates of economic growth prevail. In addition, the most vulnerable countries have the fastest growing populations and are already finding it difficult to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Third, high population growth driven by high fertility has made it more challenging for developing countries to reduce poverty. Low-income households tend to have higher numbers of children, which strains the capacity of both governments and families to provide them with the food, shelter, education, health and basic services they need.

Fourth, there are ongoing demographic shifts, such as urbanization and population ageing, that will transform economies and societies. If rising urbanization in countries that are still largely rural is not to be detrimental, it needs to be accompanied by job-creating economic growth and adequate planning. The financial resources required to promote successful urbanization are more likely to be strained if services have to be provided to a rapidly growing population.

Fifth, high fertility increases the health and mortality risks of women and children, especially if they are poor. Maternal mortality depends on the number and timing of the pregnancies a woman has over her lifetime. The ability of mothers and families to take care of and invest in each child is lower the higher the number of children they have.

What Needs to Happen?

Governments can influence future population growth through policies that increase human well-being and ensure that people can exercise their reproductive rights, thus expanding individual choices and opportunities. Government interventions to reduce child mortality and to increase levels of education, both worthwhile goals in themselves, can also influence the decisions of parents regarding the number of children to have. Moreover, implementing poverty reduction strategies that increase income-earning opportunities, especially for poor women, can empower poor people to exercise their rights and improve the life chances of their children.

Access to modern contraceptive methods is the means to enable people to exercise the right to decide freely how many children to have and when to have them. Too many people are still deprived of the means of realizing their reproductive choices because of the barriers they face in getting and using modern methods of family planning. In 2009, an estimated 210 million women who were married or in a union had either an unmet need for family planning or were using traditional methods of contraception.1 Redoubling efforts to satisfy that latent demand for modern contraception is necessary if the commitments made under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be kept.

Governments can take measures to make available a variety of contraceptive methods through as many service delivery outlets as possible. Doing so will take resources. Ensuring the availability of the additional US$ 3.6 billion (in 2008 dollars) needed to satisfy current levels of unmet need for family planning should command a high priority. Donors can help by providing predictable funding to buy adequate supplies of a wide array of contraceptive methods. After more than a decade of relative neglect, the international community is starting to come together to provide the necessary support. Major donors, such as the United Kingdom’s Department For International Development (DFID), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are focusing on assisting governments to expand and strengthen their family planning and reproductive health programmes.

These efforts that affect both the demand for children as well as the supply of commodities to manage their numbers will pay large dividends. First, declining fertility can produce changes in the age distribution of a population that are beneficial for economic growth. After fertility starts to decline, the share of children in the population drops over the next three or four decades, resulting in a high share of working-age individuals relative to that of dependants. During that period, if persons of working age are productively employed, economic output per capita will increase more rapidly than in the past, producing a “demographic dividend”. Thus, between 1960 and 1995, 20% of per capita output growth in developed and developing countries can be attributed to the effects of declining fertility.

Second, at the national level, falling fertility facilitates increasing investments in education and health, thus improving human capital. Within families as well, improvements in child nutrition, health and education can be achieved more easily when there are fewer children to compete for the resources available. Thus, reductions in fertility have the potential of starting a virtuous circle whereby countries and families with fewer children can invest more in each and therefore build a better-qualified workforce, which, in turn, will be more productive than the previous generation and will want to have fewer children in order to be able to invest more in each of them.

Third, ensuring access to modern methods of contraception for everyone who needs them is a matter of equity and human rights. In every population, the low-income segment of society has higher unmet needs for family planning than any other group. Low-income women and their children are more likely to face, therefore, the higher health risks associated with pregnancies that are too closely spaced or of high order. If the existing unmet need for modern contraception could be satisfied, unintended pregnancies could be cut by 70% and nearly 100,000 maternal deaths could be averted annually.

The prospect of accelerating economic growth by facilitating the decline of fertility is especially relevant for most of today’s most vulnerable countries, which are poised to start the period where the demographic dividend may accrue. By supporting the expansion of family planning in those countries, international donors and the governments concerned can leverage overall development efforts and improve the quality of life of millions.

What Is the Council on Population Growth Doing?

The World Demographics & Ageing Forum

On 30 August 2011, in collaboration with the World Demographics & Ageing Forum, the World Economic Forum organized the opening plenary panel of this event entitled: Seven Billion and Growing: Population Growth Meets Population Ageing.2

Members from the Council on Population Growth and the Council on Ageing Society discussed the nature and interplay of these complex demographic issues, as well as policy strategies to address them. They discussed the role and responsibility of individuals, businesses and public policy-makers in facing these challenges, as well as the options they have, singly, collectively and globally. Emphasis was placed on cross-national heterogeneity in the dimensions of current and future demographic challenges, the success of past interventions and on identifying new ideas for coping strategies.

The missing link in sustainable development: A call to integrate population in the water-food-energy nexus

In addition to this, on 11-12 January 2012, the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) convened a group of leading experts and practitioners representing the private sector, international organizations, civil society and academia to explore the linkages between water, energy and food security and population. The group called for effectively integrating population and demographics in international policies for sustainable development. The messages from this event were integrated into the work of the World Economic Forum for Rio+20.3

Consultations with the UNFPA and governments

Since 2010 the Council has been consulting and working with the Executive Director of UNFPA and certain key governments on the best way to tackle the sensitive issue of population growth. Governments that have been targeted include the Nigerian administration through the help of the Minister of State for Health, and the Ethiopian administration through its Minister of Health.

Next Steps

Going forward the Council will take a country-specific approach to the issues related to population growth. Indeed, the Council recognizes that the causes of high national fertility rates are multiple and often associated with cultural and religious considerations, women’s empowerment and education. To address these issues, the Council will focus on countries with an elevated risk of high population growth.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.