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How Empowered Women Changed the World

January 29, 2014

  We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

It’s a myth that saving lives leads to overpopulation. Bill and I wrote about three myths that block progress for the poor in our Annual Letter. If you haven’t read our Annual Letter yet, you can find it here.

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century British scholar, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth.

The fact is that a laissez faire approach to development—letting children die now so they don’t starve later—doesn't actually work, thank goodness. It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births, too.

Take Afghanistan, where 10 percent of children die and women have an average of 6.2 children. The country’s population is projected to grow from 30 million today to 55 million by 2050. Clearly, high death rates don’t prevent population growth.

When children survive in greater numbers, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then, around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birth rates started to drop. Over just two decades, Thai women went from having an average of six children to an average of two.

This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birth rates applies for the vast majority the world. As a result, the global population is growing more slowly every year. As Hans Rosling, a health professor and one of my favorite data geeks, said, “The amount of children in the world today is probably the most there will be!”

Given all the evidence, my view of a sustainable future is more optimistic than the Malthusians’. The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but when they are able to improve their lives. When parents can reasonably expect that their children will live, they choose to have fewer children in the first place.

Death rates are just one of many factors that affect birth rates. For example, education matters a great deal. In a recent study of 30 developing countries, women with no schooling had three more children on average than women who attended high school.

The desire to plan is only part of the equation; women need access to contraceptives to follow through on their plan. More than 200 million women don’t want to be pregnant but aren't using contraceptives. Because they can’t determine when to have children, they have a harder time feeding them, paying doctor bills, or sending them to school. It’s a vicious cycle of poverty.

On the other hand, the virtuous cycle that starts with basic health and empowerment can end with significant economic growth. Experts call this phenomenon “the demographic dividend,” and it’s part of the explanation for the so-called “Asian Economic Miracle” of the 1980s. As fewer children die and fewer are born, the age structure of the population changes. Eventually, there’s a bulge of people in their prime working years, generating economic growth. At the same time, since the proportion of children is smaller, the government and parents are able to invest more in each child, which can lead to long-term economic growth.

The virtuous cycle is not just development jargon. It’s a phenomenon that millions of poor people understand very well, and it guides their decisions from day to day. I have the privilege of meeting parents in poor countries who commit the small acts of love and optimism—like going without so they can pay their children’s school fees—that propel this cycle forward. The future they hope for and work hard for is the future I believe in.

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