EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Responding to the Social Challenge: Breaking Out

Many countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades are showing signs of demographic fatigue. Countries struggling with the simultaneous challenge of educating growing numbers of children, creating jobs for swelling ranks of young job seekers, and dealing with the environmental effects of population growth are stretched to the limit. When a major new threat arisessuch as the HIV epidemic—governments often cannot cope.

Problems routinely managed in industrial societies are becoming full-scale humanitarian crises in many developing ones. The rise in death rates in many African countries marks a tragic new development in world demography. In the absence of a concerted effort by national governments and the international community to accelerate the shift to smaller families, events in many countries could spiral out of control, leading to spreading political instability and economic decline.

There is an alternative to this bleak prospect, and that is to help countries that want to slow their population growth quickly to do so. This brings with it what economists call a demographic bonus. When countries move quickly to smaller families, with a sharp reduction in births, growth in the number of young dependents—those that need nurturing and educating—declines relative to the number of working adults. In this situation, productivity rises, savings and investment climb, and economic growth accelerates. Japan, which cut its population growth in half between 1951 and 1958, was one of the first countries to benefit from the demographic bonus. South Korea and Taiwan followed, and more recently China has benefited from the earlier sharp reduction in its birth rate. This effect lasts for only a few decades, but it is enough to launch a country into the modern era.48

This chapter has discussed the social preconditions for accelerating the shift to smaller families. These include filling several funding gaps—those needed to reach universal primary education; to fight infectious diseases, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; to provide reproductive health care; and to contain the HIV epidemic, among others. Collectively, the seven initiatives discussed are estimated to cost another $62 billion a year, which could be shared by the United States and other industrial countries. (See Table 10-2.) Encouragingly, several countries in Europe are convinced of the need to forge ahead in this direction.49

The heaviest investments in this effort center on education and health, which are the cornerstones of both human capital development and population stabilization. Education includes both universal primary education and a global campaign to eradicate adult illiteracy. Health care includes the basic interventions involved in controlling infectious diseases, beginning with childhood vaccinations. Adopting the basic health care program outlined in the report to WHO would itself save an estimated 8 million lives per year by 2010. This proposed initiative is a life-transforming one that can literally alter the course of history. It is a way of raising educational levels, improving health, and accelerating the shift to smaller families, a prerequisite of breaking the poverty cycle.

Helping low-income countries break out of the demographic trap is a highly profitable investment for the world's affluent nations. Industrial-country investments in education, health, and school lunches are in a sense a humanitarian response to the plight of the world's poorest countries. But more fundamentally they are investments in the world in which our children will live.


Table 10-2. Additional Annual Funding Needed to Reach Basic Social Goals
(billion dollars)
University primary education
Adult literacy campaign
Reproductive health and family planning
Closing the condom gap
School lunch program for 44 poorest countries
Assistance to preschool children and pregnant women in 44 poorest countries
Universal basic health care
Source: See endnote 49.

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48. United Nations, op. cit. note 1; for a discussion of the "demographic bonus," see UNFPA, The State of World Population 2002 (New York: 2002).

49. Costs of meeting social goals in Table 10-2 calculated by Earth Policy Institute, based on the following sources: universal primary education from World Bank, cited in Blustein, op. cit. note 13; adult literacy campaign is author's estimate; reproductive health and family planning based on the goals from and the progress since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (UNFPA, "Meeting the Goals of the ICPD," op. cit. note 9), combining the $5 billion shortfalls of the developing-country and industrial-country groups; closing the condom gap estimated from Chaya, Amen, and Fox, op. cit. note 24, and from Gardner et al., op. cit. note 24; school lunch program from McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41; assistance to preschool children and pregnant women is author's estimate of extending the U.S.'s Women, Infants, and Children program, based on McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41; universal basic health care from Sachs and the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, op. cit. note 28, subtracting the $6 billion that is currently provided each year from the needed $27 billion.


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