This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at



Rethinking Development:
The Strategic Role of
Population Issues

Nafis Sadik
Executive Director
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
New York, USA

A Presentation Made at the United Nations University
on 8 September 1993
Tokyo, Japan

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a pleasure and an honour to address such a distinguished and learned audience. The setting could not be more auspicious: A public forum on population and development, sponsored by the United Nations University and held in the capital city of the world's leading provider of development assistance. This meeting demonstrates the main ingredients of success in our collective efforts to improve the quality of life on our planet: public awareness and concern; donor interest and commitment; cooperation and coordination.

Rethinking development

The question of economic and social development has been a constant theme of international debate since the 1950s. But, three years into the Fourth United Nations Development Decade, the objective of universal well-being remains unfulfilled. In some respects it seems further away than ever. But despite many mistakes and failed initiatives in the past, we can see just as many signs of hope and some clear paths to a brighter future. We need to rethink development, building upon what has worked and rigorously rejecting failed approaches.

People-centred development

One lesson we have learned is that people must be at the centre of development-not only in the traditional sense that people are the engine of change, but also in the less-traditional sense of development that puts people first. People are the critical factor in development: firstly in terms of their numbers and the social, health, economic and environmental consequences of their actions; and secondly in terms of the decisions they make concerning the size of their families and the way they live their lives. People-centred development also means full community participation at both decision-making and implementation levels.

A second lesson is that development must be sustainable and environmentally sound. If economic development destroys the earth's natural resource base in the process, it is self-defeating. The other aspect of sustainable development is population growth; the numbers of people must be in balance with the resources to sustain them, or the whole system will collapse.

This, at least, is what the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London concluded in a joint report released in early 1992. Without restraint in population growth and the use of resources, the report said, "science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world".

Science and technology can give us some of the answers: but rapid population growth and indiscriminate consumption are in the end human problems; they call for human responses.

Choice and responsibility

Choice and responsibility are the essence of people-centred devel-opment. People need the information and opportunity to make good choices. But they also must be responsible for the choices they make. No choice is more important or more personal, or carries with it greater responsibility, than that of family size. We also need the opportunity for informed choice about our consumption habits. This will enable each of us to do our part to conserve resources and to ensure our consumption habits are sustainable.

Governments too have responsibilities. They must respond to their people's needs and make appropriate choices about policies and programmes. At the international level, they must look for renewed commitment to global development, with the aim of widening the range of choices open to people in developing countries.

The strategic role of population issues

It is important to emphasize international responsibility, because in today's world each country must accept that it depends on others for its survival. Questions of population, the environment, and sustainable development are genuinely universal. They demand the world's attention, and only the world's nations acting together can find genuine solutions. Last year the population of the world grew by some 93 million people. The number of people added each year is rising. By the end of this decade, it will reach 97 million per year. By the end of this century, the world's population will reach 6.2 billion, and by the year 2025, it will reach 8.5 billion.

Ninety-five per cent of this growth will take place in today's developing countries.

In the past, economic development was the solution to poverty and to the demographic transition from large families to small ones as the eventual solution to population growth. Damage to the environ-ment was seen as a necessary cost of development.

We can no longer make such assumptions. Economic growth has created vast wealth-but it has not eliminated poverty, and it has certainly not slowed the pace of population growth. On the contrary, economic growth concentrated in some parts of the world has vastly increased pollution and environmental destruction. It may have contributed to increasing poverty-and continued high population growth-in other areas.

The new approach to development must look for other ways to slow population growth, and recognize how closely population, consumption and the environment are linked.

At any level of development, larger numbers of people require more basic resources, and at the same time produce more waste and pollution. In developing countries, the combination of widespread poverty and rapid population increase puts additional pressure on local environments. Poor communities in rural areas depend on their immediate surroundings for food, fuel and shelter. With increasing numbers, they are forced to exploit natural resources faster than they can be replenished. Soil erosion, destruction of forests, and desertification are some of the consequences. Already, approximately 160 million hectares of land have been seriously degraded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These trends undermine the agricultural base of society. In many countries, the potential for expanding arable land to keep pace with growing populations is completely exhausted. Between 1978 and 1989 for example, food production lagged behind population growth in 69 of 102 developing countries for which data were available. In the mid 1980s, 52 million more people were chronically hungry than at the end of the 1960s.

The new approach to development must consider that for any given type of technology, for any given level of consumption or waste, for any level of poverty or inequality, the more people there are, the greater is the impact on the environment and, in turn, on remaining resources.

Four areas require our immediate attention if we are to bring about an integrated, people centred, environmentally sound and sustainable development. First, we must change development priorities towards the social sectors, in particular to efforts to encourage slower population growth and to improve women's reproductive health; second, we must mount an all out attack on poverty; third, we must shift to cleaner technologies, energy efficiency and resource conservation; and fourth, we must decisively improve the status of girls and women.

Decision-makers and development planners have to recognize that slower and more balanced population growth are achieved through considered population policies, which include emphasis on social investment. Development plans must, therefore, give priority to educa-tion, especially for women, health, welfare and family planning; and to other measures which will encourage slower population growth.

Population Programme Experience

At UNFPA, we have had nearly twenty-five years of operational experience in social investment. While we know that changes do not come easily, we also know what works in the population field, and what it takes to achieve population goals and objectives.

First is political commitment, manifested in the allocation of human and financial resources in support of population activities.

Second, there must be a mobilization of individual and community support and active local participation in defining and implementing programmes. This involvement guarantees that programmes and their supporting communication and education strategies will remain sensitive to the local socio-cultural context and be responsive to local needs.

Third, women should be involved at all stages of the planning and execution of population programmes. Women are one of the most valuable but least appreciated resources for development; they are often the true managers of family resources, besides being the mediators of demographic trends. A vigorous effort to improve their educational, social and financial status is essential to the success of population programmes.

Fourth is the institutional framework for delivering services: trained service delivery personnel; networks of distribution points; and logistic systems to keep them supplied.

Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have shown that under these conditions modern family planning can spread very quickly. Fertility and family size have fallen rapidly in these countries. It is no accident that these countries are also Asia's most recent economic success stories.

The Unmet Need for Family Planning

It is estimated that even today as many as 300 million women in developing countries do not have ready access to safe and effective means of contraception. Yet, surveys have shown that nine out of every ten women would either like to postpone their next pregnancy or wish to have no more children. Their needs can be met, and they can be met quickly, with no new technology and at a low cost compared with other development programmes.

Resource Needs

Nearly all developing countries are ready-indeed eager-to address a wide array of population issues. They know what to do and how to do it. They are increasingly requesting UNEPA's services to help them. What is lacking is the necessary resources, which lag far behind the public commitments of the industrialized countries, and the needs of developing countries. We are grateful to the Government of Japan for its steady financial support to the work of UNFPA; but we hope that all the industrialized countries will be able to commit at least 4 per cent of development resources to population, rather than the present 1.5 per cent.

From Rio to Cairo

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro broke important new ground in dealing with the complex interrelationship between development and the environment. It created exciting opportunities for cooperation and progress. And it produced a clear imperative to take concerted action to devise ways to address these interrelated issues. The International Conference on Population and Development to be held in Cairo next year will build on this historic and unprecedented consensus, and focus world attention on the most important issue of our times.

This was a common theme that emerged from the five regional conferences that were held as part of the preparatory process for the Cairo Conference. Naturally, there were distinct regional differences. But participants at all five conferences underscored the importance of placing population prominently on the political and social agenda. All also reaffirmed the right of couples to determine freely and responsibly the size of their families and the spacing of their children. And all recognized the integral role of women in all aspects of population and development activities and the need to ensure equality of opportunity for women and girls in all social and economic spheres.

The International Conference on Population and Development will provide a unique opportunity to place population squarely in the forefront of development activities. It will allow us to ensure that individuals are at the centre of all our activities and decisions. This is not to overlook the needs of society as a whole, however, or those of nations and the international community. Rather, addressing the essential needs of the individual will help to keep the needs of larger groups such as the family, community, nation and indeed the planet in the proper perspective. It will also challenge the international community to reach agreement on the appropriate balance between individual rights and responsibilities, on the one hand, and societal rights and obligations on the other.

Ultimately, sustainable development is about choices and responsibilities-for the individual, the community, the nation and the world. Its aim is to widen our freedom of choice - choice in the matter of family size, choice in population policy and programmes, choice in development philosophy and practice.

With choice, of course, comes responsibility. Men must take responsibility for contraception and fatherhood; communities for their weaker and more vulnerable members; nations for the well-being of their people; and the global community for ensuring the balance between development and environment on which all else depends.

Choices and responsibilities will be the theme in Cairo. I hope at this public forum you will also adopt it as your theme. Together, we can ensure that it is adopted by the world.

Return to previous page

Return to the UNU Homepage