World population day: looking beyond the numbers towards equitable and healthy societies
11 July 2022
Author: Felix Otiato and Bernard Onyango
Policies that promote increased access to sexual and reproductive health care, education, and with a focus on girls, and women's empowerment, will make a world of difference as the world’s population hits the 8 billion mark. (Photo: Annie Spratt/Creative Commons

According to the United Nations estimates, the world’s population will hit the 8 billion mark in 2022. This is triple the number in the 1950s. This growth has been attributed to the increase in life expectancy due to health, nutrition, and hygiene advancements. Life expectancy has increased rapidly from the mid-40s in the 1900s and currently stands at over 70 years.

The unprecedented growth is also due to persistently high (although slowly declining) fertility levels, especially in the Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The population of SSA is projected to double between 2020 and 2050, accounting for more than one billion people by 2050. According to the United Nations, the global population will continue to increase for decades even if there is a substantial reduction in fertility levels in the near future. This is because there is already in-built population momentum with a large proportion of young people and children already born, who are yet to enter their reproductive life stage.

Further, the large number of young people currently in Africa, who will reach adulthood in the coming years, ensures that the region will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world’s population over the coming decades.

Sustained, rapid population growth adds to the challenge of achieving social and economic development and magnifies the scale of the investments and effort required to ensure that no one is left behind.

Population dynamics significantly impact our overarching development objectives. This is because the human population and the conditions within which this population thrives are the ultimate measures of development.  Some of the criteria for judging whether development is sustainable or not include health and well-being, the state of our environment and biodiversity, the empowerment of vulnerable segments of our population, and others, as highlighted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As the world population continues to grow, we expect our planet, Earth, to continue providing land, food, shelter, energy, and other resources. For these reasons, the integration of population dynamics in sustainable development is essential if we are to equitably meet the needs of the present generation without sacrificing the livelihoods of future generations. We must also acknowledge that rapid population growth is both a cause and consequence of slow progress in development.

Most of the current rapid population growth is happening in LMICs. Many of these societies face increasing challenges balancing the rapid population growth and their socio-economic development ambitions. As a result, they struggle with issues such as unemployment, overburdened schools, and hospitals, and strained infrastructure. In such countries, women also have limited reproductive health choices, including access to family planning services and commodities to enable them decide on the number of children they want and when to have them.

According to UNFPA, over 200 million women in LMICs lack access to voluntary family planning, including sexual and reproductive health care. Human-centered policies, including increased access to sexual and reproductive health care, education and skills training beyond basic levels, and with a focus on girls, and women’s empowerment, will make a world of difference.

Therefore, on World Population Day 2022, UNFPA, in its communique, calls on all stakeholders to focus on people and not numbers so that together we can make the systems work for the growing numbers by promoting the health and well-being of people. Failure to meet people’s needs, reduce poverty, raise living standards and ensure greater equity will threaten stability, security, and sustainability throughout the world.

According to the UNFPA, in order to bring back the population agenda into the sustainable development discussion, there is a need to recognize that:

  • Population dynamics have a significant influence on sustainable development,
  • Efforts to promote sustainable development that do not address population dynamics have and will continue to fail,
  • Change is possible through policies that respect freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, access to sexual and reproductive health care, education beyond the primary level, and women’s empowerment.

The BUILD project aligns with these and seeks to amplify the population, environment, and development (PED) approach to achieve strong political commitment, sustained financial resources, and accountability for voluntary family planning/reproductive health.

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