World Population Day – How far can we evaluate population matters?

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The notion that demography is destiny has become cliché and subsequently derided, not least because of the exhausting political struggles and unpleasant history of population planning.  But the sentiment, though crude in its formulation, accurately reflects the influence that demography wields over every society. As the modern state has expanded to service the needs of its people, so has the age structure shaped the frame of reference for crucial policy decisions and the way they are evaluated, from school class size to pension provision. Policy makers struggle to communicate the necessity of often painful adjustments to demographic change, making the role of the evaluator in providing evidence-based analysis all the more important. 

Lately, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic departure from trendlines with much of the global north experiencing a ‘baby bust’ that will redraw vital planning assumptions for health, education and other public services.  It remains to be seen whether fertility will follow its wartime pattern, with depressed births during a conflict followed by a surge thereafter.  Humanity appears to be so attuned to this pattern – and the differential impact of war on men and women – that studies have consistently shown that proportionally more boys are born in the aftermath of a war.  

Even before the pandemic, major demographic shifts were underway that promised to transform societies around the world.  Though attention has been focussed on ageing in China, the number of children in India has already peaked.  But the global picture of fertility decline belies staggering divergences: 7.5 million babies were born in Nigeria alone in 2019, compared to 4.2 million in the entire European Union. 

How can we evaluate social programmes responding to this change and, more importantly, should we? At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, much of the framework for evaluating family planning fell away.  The conference resolution abandoned economic rationales for family planning, erasing, for example, the notion that a larger cohort of children puts pressure on educational resources. 

This decision, made under considerable political pressure, has been subject to sustained criticism since its inception from those who regard it as a legitimate line of inquiry.  This has been joined by increasing concern about the environmental impact of demographic trends. It would be wrong to say that the empirical evidence before or since has strongly linked population growth to economic difficulties: such a link has been repeatedly disputed.  It has even been suggested that a larger population is positively correlated with political stability. However, these legitimate doubts alone would not justify the 1994 decision, upheld ever since, to de-prioritise discussion, action, messaging and evaluation of family planning. The real and understandable motivation for the volte face was growing concern about the application of family planning in a manner seen to be coercive and divisive.  Including family planning in global initiatives thereby risked lending international credibility to programmes that were understood to violate the human rights of vulnerable groups, particularly women. 

Since 1994, family planning – the umbrella term for nearly all evaluation of interventions on population grounds – has been absent from major international initiatives and institutional support. Institutions formerly concerned with it redirected their energy towards a new and ambitious agenda of women’s empowerment, in which family planning featured primarily as an expression of female agency.  The Millennium Development Goals omitted all reference to population matters and poverty reduction programmes followed suit, seldom probing the link between rapid population growth and economic deprivation. 

However, in the last decade, groups such as the Gates Foundation have supported more expansive family planning programmes, adopting a more urgent tone without breaking entirely from the language in use since 1994. The Sustainable Development Goals, established in 2015 as a successor to the Millenium Development Goals, also reintroduced family planning, albeit in a more subdued form.  As new and more imaginative interventions take place, the question for evaluators becomes: do we operate within the accepted framework of inquiry, inherited from the political decisions of 1994?  To this day, family planning remains associated with political misadventures and demographic statistics remain so politically fraught that states refuse to collect them.  Can useful evaluation be conducted under these circumstances?  Without sufficiently supportive political will and institutional backing, are evaluations even possible? Given what is at stake, can we afford not to investigate?