Asia's population successes bring new challenges

Noeleen Heyzer and Babatunde Osotimehin say region faces ageing crisis

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 2:21am

Half a century ago, the world was warned of the imminent explosion of "the population bomb". There were fears that humanity would suffer mass starvation and that societies would plunge into turmoil - all because of overpopulation.

At that time, Asia was considered to be at the core of the problem. The average woman in Asia could expect to bear five children in her lifetime. The region's population was projected to double in 33 years.

Many countries responded by embarking on programmes to control population growth. The landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, attended by 179 governments, shifted the discourse on "population control" to people-centred development.

The programme of action established inseparable linkages between population and development policies, with a clear focus on sexual and reproductive health from the standpoint of human rights - in particular, the rights of women and families to decide whether and when to have children.

The probability of every child surviving to adulthood was greatly increased. Families acquired better knowledge of sexual and reproductive health. Many more were given the means to make informed decisions about their fertility.

The Asia-Pacific region can be proud of its successes: an average woman today has around two children instead of five. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. Almost as many girls as boys enter primary school.

On issues of sexual and reproductive health … great strides have been made

But success comes with new challenges. The concern today is not just about population numbers; it is about the complex linkages between population and development. Putting people first to build better lives must remain the focus of efforts to address the challenges in the region. Increased life expectancy and lower fertility rates have resulted in rapid population ageing in the region that is unprecedented in human history. Some countries are at risk of becoming old before they become rich. There is an urgent need for the region to prepare for ageing societies.

In South Asia, around half of the population is still below the age of 25. With the appropriate mix of policies, it will be possible to reap the youth dividend. On issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights, great strides have been made in strengthening policy. Yet programme implementation is lagging, particularly in targeting the most sexually active group, namely youth. Comprehensive sex education and increased access to contraceptives must be a priority.

Most of all, the response to the region's challenges must be grounded in a commitment to address the unmet needs of women and all other groups that remain excluded from the development process.

How to collectively tackle these challenges will be answered at the Sixth Asian and Pacific Population Conference this week in Bangkok. The more than 400 representatives from over 45 nations will seek fresh solutions. The outcome of the conference will shape population and development policies for the future we want.

As Asia-Pacific takes its place on the world stage, our governments have the means and a responsibility to build better lives for the region's 4.3 billion people. There is greater hope that the rapid population and development transformation will nurture the promise of a future brighter than was predicted half a century ago.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer is undersecretary-general of the UN and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is undersecretary-general and executive director of the UN Population Fund