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John F. May

S.E.R. | « Études »

2012/11 Volume 417 | pages 441 - 452

ISSN 0014-1941
This document is the English version of:
John F. May, « Le rôle des politiques de population », Études 2012/11 (Volume 417),
p. 441-452.
Translated from the French by Cadenza Academic Translations

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John F. May, « Le rôle des politiques de population », Études 2012/11 (Volume 417),
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The Role of Population


John F. M ay

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lthough the global population reached the mile-
stone of seven billion on October 31, 2011, and should
increase again by three billion by the end of the end
1. Un ited Nat ions , of the century (average United Nations projection),1 many
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Population Division, 2010

R e v i s i o n o f Wo r l d experts believe that population growth no longer merits the
Popu lation Prospects: primary attention it was given in the past. They point out the
need to train human capital (education and health), to fight
tion.htm (consulted in poverty, and to reduce inequalities. They also cite a series of
September 2012). Unless other issues that are more important in their eyes than pop-
otherwise stated, the data
used in this article are from ulation growth (or its decline in some countries), namely
the Population Division of environmental protection, global warming, repeated food
t he Depar t ment of
crises, excessive and polluting consumption by the industri-
E conom ic a nd S ocia l
A f fa irs of t he United alized countries, as well as the fight against the HIV/Aids
Nations in New York. epidemic.
This intellectual attitude is partly inspired by the suc-
cess of population policies put in place between 1960 and
1980, at that time in the form of family-planning programs
(in 1960 the global population was three billion people).
These programs, combined with other socioeconomic
advances (women’s education as well as their access to paid
employment), accelerated the decline in fertility and slowed
demographic growth in developing countries. Unfortunately

some of these interventions were authoritarian, even abusive.
This was the case in India with episodes of forced steriliza-
tions during the period known as the Emergency from 1975-
1977. As for China, in 1979 it adopted a very harsh policy
known as the one-child policy, which is still in force today
despite many exceptions. These serious infringements of
individual freedom provided additional arguments for oppo-
nents of any intervention on population and, especially, fer-
tility. These developments also led some demographers to
doubt the legitimacy of population policies while, moreover,
questioning their effectiveness.2 2. Jacques Vallin, “Faut-il
une politique de popula-
However, strong population growth will continue, t i on? ” Po p u l a t i o n e t
even if some countries experience a decline in their popula- Sociétés 489 (May 2012).
tion. Between now and the end of the century, the planet will
have to accommodate a number of people equivalent to more
than 40% of its current population. Nowadays there are also
new demographic challenges. These are the high fertility

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rates that persist in the poorest countries (most of the for-
ty-eight countries called “least developed”), the low fertility
rate and sometimes depopulation in several industrialized
countries (in Europe) and even in some emerging countries
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3.  Demographic transi-

(in Asia), and, especially, changes in the age structure follow- tion is the passage from a
regime of high fertility and
ing the demographic transition process.3 These changes in high mortality, almost in
the age pyramids have economic consequences, known as equilibrium, to a regime
the “demographic dividend.” This occurs when the fall in of low fertility and low
mortality, again almost in
fertility causes the base of the pyramid to stabilize, or even equilibrium. During this
shrink, which has the dual effect of increasing the number of process, popu lation
growth accelerates because
working people, in relative terms, and reducing the burden of the initial decline in
of children that is borne by workers. As well as all these mortality, which is fol-
dimensions, we can add those of rapid urbanization and the lowed, generally after a cer-
tain time gap, by a fall in
growth of slums, particularly in the major countries of South fertility.
Asia and Africa. Finally, international migratory flows will
also probably escalate in the next few decades.4 4. International migrants
(people living in a country
This article is aimed in particular at recalling the his- other than that of their
toric role of population policies, and emphasizing the impor- birth) today represent
about 3% of the global pop-
tance of new demographic issues, which will require new ulation; see John F. May,
government responses. The article remains at the level of World Population Policies:
population policies and does not offer a moral reflection, Their Origin, Evolution,
and Impact (New York:
which is the responsibility of authorities other than that of Springer, 2012), 33.
the demographer. Nevertheless, knowledge of population
policies is an essential precondition for this moral reflection.

A History of Population Policies
Population policies can be defined as actions taken explicitly
or implicitly by the authorities to predict, delay, or manage
imbalances between demographic changes, on the one hand,
and social, economic, environmental, and political objec-
5. May, World Population
Policies, 1-2. tives on the other.5 They are implemented by means of “polit-
ical levers,” namely the instruments or points of entry used
to obtain the changes desired. These instruments are access
to information, laws and regulations, taxation, subsidies and
6.  May, World Population
Policies, 60.
investments, and finally the direct provision of services.6 For
example, vaccination programs are accompanied by infor-
mation campaigns, the vaccines are imported with no cus-
toms duties, and the services are subsidized by the authorities.
First and foremost, governments are responsible for
implementing population policies, sometimes entrusting
specific interventions to nongovernmental organizations

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(NGOs) or private associations. In some countries, these
have led directly to policy changes; this was the case in Latin
America. Moreover a network of international organiza-
tions, as well as NGOs, assisted developing countries in for-
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mulating and implementing their population policies. This

assistance was financial and technical. In developing or
industrialized countries, however, policies have most often
taken the form of socioeconomic regulations (family allow-
ance, healthcare, pension funds) that were supposed to cor-
rect or sometimes just support demographic changes. Finally,
all policies on population or socioeconomic regulation
always have the ultimate objective of acquiring public goods,
that is, tending towards the common good.
Following the Second World War, interventions by
colonial powers in developing countries were aimed at reduc-
ing the high levels of mortality, particularly among infants
and children. Besides vaccination campaigns and the fight
against major endemics (for example, malaria), governments
have worked to supply drinking water and sanitation. The
authorities have also tried to improve nutrition levels. These
advances in public health and improvements in living condi-
tions helped to rapidly reduce mortality. In turn, this decrease
led to an acceleration in population growth, which was partic-
ularly apparent in Asia, which was already the most populous
region in the world in the 1960s. This situation, unprecedented
in the history of humankind, led governments and

international organizations to turn to the problem of high
demographic growth and, this time, to consider implementing
programs specifically aimed at reducing high fertility.
The pioneering countries in this field were Japan and
India. In Japan, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the
leaders passed a law in 1948 known as eugenic protection,
which helped to accelerate the transition in fertility. India was
the first major country to officially implement a national pop-
ulation policy, adopted in 1952, whose stated aim was to reduce
fertility by making access to family-planning services easier.
However, the results of this policy were slow to appear, hence
the abuses already mentioned. Egypt was also concerned
about its population issue beginning in the 1950s, but only set
up an organized program to reduce fertility twenty-five or
thirty years later. As well as family planning, a few countries
tried other responses to population growth. Thus Indonesia,
with the support of the World Bank, launched a redistribution

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of the population, which resulted in the displacement of about
three million people from Java to different islands of the archi-
pelago between 1974 and 1994. However, this policy of trans-
migration only absorbed 15% of Java’s population growth.7 7.  May, World Population
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Policies, 156.
It should be emphasized that these policies focused on
fertility did not succeed everywhere. In this regard, the com-
parison of Pakistan and Bangladesh is enlightening. A pro-
gram of medicalized family planning failed in Pakistan, even
though the population there was relatively more educated. In
Bangladesh (which was part of Pakistan until 1971), a more
innovative program with a strategy of door-to-door visits
produced good results, even though the socioeconomic situ-
ation was a priori more unfavorable. The emphasis initially
placed solely on family planning gradually gave way to a
much broader approach of human development, favoring
socioeconomic advances and the primacy of women’s educa-
tion. Moreover, the rise in influence of feminist ideas and
rejection of the abuses which several governments were
guilty of led international stakeholders (NGOs, activists,
8. These had already been
pressure groups) to emphasize individual rights.8 confirmed at the 1968
These two developments, that is, taking greater Tehran Conference (see
May, World Population
account of human development and an increased respect for Policies, 109).
human rights, merged in 1994 at the International Conference
on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in what is
known as the Cairo Agenda, namely the promotion of “repro-
ductive health.” This agenda was not well defined, its

priorities were not clear, and it was undoubtedly too ambi-
tious. It was not fully implemented, partly because of the lack
9.  Today, it is estimated of funding, both at the national and international level.9
that 222 million women
do not have access to fam-
For their part, industrialized countries faced the chal-
ily-planning services. This lenges of low fertility (below 2.1 children per woman, the
is the reason for organizing level of generational replacement), an aging population, and
the London Summit in July
2012, at the instigation of international migration. In these countries, policies aimed at
the British Department for increasing fertility have had modest results. Although, on
International Development
and the Bill and Melinda
the whole, policies to increase the birth rate have succeeded
Gates Foundation, whose in increasing fertility at the margin, they have not led to a
goal was to mobilize new dramatic increase in the number of births. France may be an
exception: this country, which has followed a fairly consis-
tent probirth policy for almost a century now, has a fertility
rate (two children per woman) that is among the highest in
the European area. Policies to manage an aging population
have also only produced a few tangible results and attempts
to raise the retirement age have often come up against open

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hostility. Finally, with regard to immigration, a distinction
should be made between countries that are traditionally
open to immigrants (the United States, Canada, and
Australia), those with a less strong tradition of welcome
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(most European countries), and those closed to immigration

(Japan). Migratory policies generally helped to attract immi-
grants but had little success in making them return to their
country of origin. Nor did these policies prevent the phe-
nomenon of illegal immigration. The regularization of those
who are “undocumented” remains a controversial subject in
the political life of many industrialized countries, as can be
seen nowadays in the United States.

Population Becomes a Global Issue

Since the 1970s, demographic questions have become a true
international issue thanks to the United Nations organizing
major conferences on this subject. The first of these meetings
took place in Bucharest in 1974. It opposed neo-Malthusians,
who supported intervention on fertility, and developmental-
ists, who supported socioeconomic advances alone to reduce
fertility. Socioeconomic development eventually reduces fer-
tility, but the “time” variable (in other words the acceleration
of population growth in the short term) sometimes requires
targeted interventions regarding fertility.

The Bucharest conference was followed ten years later
by the conference in Mexico, this time marked by a complete
reversal by the United States, which maintained that the
demographic factor was neutral for socioeconomic develop-
ment and promoted the market economy as a key element for
progress. The last major meeting devoted to demographic
questions was the already-mentioned Cairo ICPD. This
meeting was relatively more consensual than previous con-
ferences, despite the opposition of some traditionalist and
religious forces. It should be emphasized that the commit-
ments made during these conferences, often adopted in a cli-
10. In 1995 the Fourth
mate of optimism, are not always followed by tangible effects World Conference on
in the countries themselves. We saw this with the Cairo Wo m e n w a s h e l d i n
Agenda, whose implementation, we could say, left a lot to be Beijing, the inf luence of
which was similar to that
desired, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.10 of the Cairo Conference.
Around the same time, new institutions were created,
aimed at promoting family planning or dealing more gener-

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11.  May, World Population
ally with questions relating to population.11 In 1952, the year Policies, 99-105.
India adopted the first population policy, a group of eight
national associations created the International Planned
Parenthood Federation (IPPF), whose headquarters is in
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London and which is based on 172 national associations. A

series of other institutions were established slightly later;
these were either bilateral, like the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) or the American
International Development Cooperation Agency, set up in
1961 by President John F. Kennedy, or multilateral, like the
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), created in 1969.
Finally, we must not forget the crucial role played by the
major American foundations, such as the Population Council
or the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Today, the Bill and
Melinda Gates and William and Flora Hewlett foundations
are the leaders in this field.
The spread of family planning was promoted by con-
certed efforts at the international level that were dissemi-
nated by a series of specialized national organizations. The
Population Movement played a leading role in this regard.
Mainly funded by American foundations, this movement
facilitated what was called the “contraceptive revolution.”
This “revolution” was promoted either by government efforts
(in the case of Asia), or by those of NGOs and private associ-
ations (in the case of Latin America). In developing coun-
tries, fertility, estimated at six children per woman in 1960,

12. On the whole, family fell to fewer than three children per woman forty years later.12
planning programs helped Of course, women’s education and their entry into work
to reduce fertility by a pro-
portion that is estimated, which followed or accompanied the fall in fertility are also
depending on the country, factors that played an important role.13 We should also note
at between 0.5 and 1.5 chil-
dren per woman (interna-
the influence of changes in perception and attitude com-
tional empirical data). pared with traditional family norms. These are “ideational”
13.  The rapid demographic
changes, or the diffusion of new ideas, often fueled by word
transformation of South of mouth as well as reinforced by the media (the case of nove-
Korea has been interpreted las or soap operas televised in Brazil).
by some experts as an “edu-
cational” transition, with
Finally, since 1945, enormous efforts, both national
improvements in the levels and international, have been made with regard to the collec-
of secondary and tertiary tion of population data. These efforts have helped to improve
educ at ion hav i ng led
to changes in couples’ the measurement of population growth. Population censuses
behavior. became more regular (every ten years). Consequently, exten-
sive programs of demographic surveys (most often every five
years) were also established. The largest is that of demo-
graphic and health surveys, funded by the United States and

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still in progress. Simultaneously, the United Nations
Population Division has launched a series of surveys with
governments to find out about their perceptions concerning
changes in their population and, in particular, their popula-
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14. See United Nations, tion policies.14 Finally, the increased availability of popula-
World Population Policies
2009 (New York: United tion projections, facilitated by the arrival of information
Nations, Department of technology, was also a decisive element in governments’
E conom ic a nd S ocia l
A f fa i rs, Popu lat ion
awareness of demographic issues. In this context, the United
Division, 2010). National Population Division prepares biennial demographic
projections, which are authoritative. Furthermore, every
year the same organization convenes the Commission on
Population and Development (created in 1946) in New York,
which analyzes a different theme every time.

New Population Policies

While most countries in the world are about to end their pro-
cess of demographic transition, the least developed countries
are still experiencing high fertility levels – of at least four
children per woman with the exception of some countries,
including Bangladesh, which has already mentioned. These
“least developed” countries represent about 16% of the global
population and will experience strong demographic growth,
which the countries will have to deal with, particularly in
Africa, and more especially in ecologically fragile areas such

as the Sahel.15 About 38% of the global population lives in 15.  Jean-Pierre Guengant
countries where fertility is between 4 and 2.1 children per and John F. May, “L’Afrique
subsaharienne dans la
woman (the replacement level). These countries should con- démographie mondiale,”
tinue their demographic transition, while ensuring that Études (October 2011):
inequalities between the different sections of the population
are reduced, as well as those between men and women.
Finally, 46% of the global population lives in countries where
fertility is today below the replacement level. These countries
have to deal with problems of subfertility and an aging pop-
ulation, even of depopulation, sometimes in conjunction
with the crucial question of major immigration flows.
The United Nations predicts that the global popula-
tion could reach 10.1 billion inhabitants at the end of the cen-
tury, if fertility reaches about two children per woman in
2095-2100: this is the average assumed projection already
mentioned. However, a variation of half a point in this pre-
dicted fertility level, up or down, would give very different

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results in 2100. Thus a final fertility rate of 2.5 children per
woman would lead to a global population of 15.8 billion
inhabitants in 2100! Conversely, a fertility rate of 1.5 children
per woman would see the global population stabilize at about
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6.2 billion inhabitants in 2100, after a peak of 8.1 billion peo-

ple around 2045.
This illustrates the crucial importance of fertility rates
for future global demographic developments. In addition,
the demographic developments of tomorrow are occurring 16. Guengant and May,
“L’A f r ique subsa ha r i-
now, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.16 A delay of just a enne,” 311-312.
few years in the transition in fertility will result in a substan-
tial increase in the population these countries will reach in
the future. This is largely caused by the phenomenon of the
momentum of the population, namely a surplus of popula-
tion growth caused by a very young age structure (in other
words, there are so many young people who are old enough
to be married that the population will continue to increase
even if fertility declines).
Conversely, another series of issues arises when fertil-
ity no longer reaches the replacement level, particularly when
fertility is at levels that are barely above one child per woman
(this is the situation in several European countries and some
Asian countries or geographical entities, including South
Korea and Taiwan). These countries are facing depopulation,
in other words, as well as aging; their population is also
declining in number. They are, therefore, sometimes forced

to accommodate more immigrants, whose integration can
prove to be all the more difficult since the host population is
less numerous, less dynamic, and is aging rapidly.
These new demographic issues are emerging in an
international context that has also changed significantly in
the last two decades. First of all, the question of climate
change and environmental protection returns with increas-
ing persistence on the international scene, even if the demo-
graphic aspects are not sufficiently highlighted. The sudden
rise in grain prices, for example, is partly linked to global
warming, but it is also caused by substantial population
growth, as well as the appearance of mass biofuel production
and the desire of people in emerging countries to consume
more animal proteins (the animals most often being fed with
grain). Then the joint issues of poverty and inequality also
mobilize the international community. These problems have
a demographic dimension as well. The relationship between

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high fertility and poverty is now established, at least at the
17. Thomas W. Merrick, level of households.17 A new branch of population studies is
“Population and Poverty:
New Views on an Old also interested in the question of security and its links with
demographic trends in countries that have not yet completed
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C o n t r o v e r s y,”
In t e r n a t i o n a l Fa m i ly
Planning Perspectives 28,
their transition. What was known as the Arab Spring clearly
no. 1 (2002): 41-46. has a demographic aspect because of the often huge propor-
tion (more than 40%) of young people between the age of fif-
teen and twenty-four among adults aged fifteen or above.
These young people, most of whom have a certain level of
18.  Among Islamic coun- education, demand jobs and a better future.18 Moreover, half
tries, Iran has experienced the world’s population lives in urban areas, the definition of
a dramatic fall in fertility,
which has gone from seven which varies, however, from country to country. In 2050,
to fewer than two children two-thirds of people will be city dwellers. This phenomenon
per woman between 1984
and 2006, that is, in only
is unfortunately accompanied by a growth in slums in major
twenty-two years; it is the cities in developing countries, which will urgently require
most rapid fall in fertility real urbanization policies.
ever recorded. See May,
World Population Policies, Finally, modern technologies, for example ultrasound
134. antenatal examination, also pose new and formidable dilem-
mas. This inexpensive technology makes it easier to choose
the sex of children, but unfortunately it too often leads to
selective abortions of girl fetuses. This produces serious sta-
tistical distortions in the balance between boys and girls.
China, for example, already has to cope with tens of millions
of young men who have little hope of being able to marry and
start a family.

Development and Demography
Explicit or implicit population policies will largely determine
the future demographic development of human societies. The
acquisition of public goods and the degree to which objectives
to reduce poverty and inequalities are achieved will depend
on the results of these policies. Likewise, global food security
(and consequently malnutrition levels) will also depend on
the success of population policies, as half the targeted objec-
tives are linked to future fertility levels.19 Finally, achieving 19.  Philippe Collomb,
Une Voie étroite pour la
the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs), adopted in sécurité alimentaire d’ici
2000 and most of which contribute towards results in terms of à 2050 (Rome/Pa ris:
United Nations Food and
population, or which depend on these, is also closely linked to Agriculture Organization
the effectiveness of population policies or their absence. (FAO) & E c onom ic a ,
It appears that the main challenge for these policies in 1999).

the twenty-first century will be to link interventions in the

area of population to the new issues of economic and human

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development. These are reducing poverty, promoting fair-
ness, the rollout of secondary and tertiary education, con-
trolling the HIV/Aids epidemic, satisfying the needs of the
young, preventing conflicts and violence, and preserving the
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balance between population and environment. In industrial-

ized countries, it is a question of securing the global sustain-
ability of socioeconomic gains made. However, in developing
countries and especially in the least developed countries, the
objective is above all to allow the most destitute to break with
the spiral of poverty.
To meet all these challenges, new population policies
should take account of five essential priorities.20 First of all, 2 0 . J o h n F. M a y,
“Population Policy,” in
there should be the broadest possible consensus on the Handbook of Population,
options chosen in terms of population policies. Then, the eds. Dudley L. Poston and
new policies should be organized around a few basic themes, Michael Mick lin (New
York: Kluwer Academic/
such as human development, the reduction in inequalities, Plenum Publisher Springer
the fight against poverty, and intergenerational transfers. Science & Business Media,
Inc., 2005), 848-849.
Policies should also be much more inclusive and take greater
account of the wishes of individuals themselves. Moreover,
new and more reliable data should be collected, particularly
on international migration. Finally, policies should also con-
sider the results of scientific research, which is constantly
shifting, thanks to the collection of new data. Four groups of
people will require particular attention in these new polices,
namely women, teenagers, the elderly, and migrants, with
the latter too often ignored.

Population policies contribute to achieving global
objectives, but they are not a goal in themselves. However,
governments sometimes believe that they can leave popula-
tion questions to one side and achieve their socioeconomic
development objectives by other means (for example, via edu-
cating women alone). They often feel that it is difficult to deal
with demographic questions head on because of human
rights, cultural and religious barriers, or political conse-
quences. Nevertheless, there will always be a need for popula-
tion policies because one cannot ignore demographic issues.
It seems, then, that, far from being overtaken, population pol-
icies are more important and more necessary than ever.

John F. May

Abstract – The global population has reached the mi-

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lestone of seven billion inhabitants and should increase
by three billion people by the end of the century. It is
therefore important to remember the historic role of
population policies and to emphasize the importance of
demographic issues, which will require new responses by
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