World Population Day 2019: Rights Not Numbers

11 Jul 2019

Today, there are 4.6 billion people living in the Asia-Pacific region. By 2050, projections from the UN Population Division show that there will be 600 million more people, representing the balance of births, deaths and migration into and out of countries of the region.

Reporting on population, this is what tends to be the focus. There are more people than ever, and the number continues to grow. How are we going to cope with this growth? Can we find jobs for everyone? What will be the impact on the environment?

These considerations are important, as rapid population growth does make it difficult to ensure that everyone is able to find decent work and access services, and creates demand for environmental services.

But it is far from the whole story.

Firstly, although the numbers seem huge, the speed of population growth has been slowing for decades; secondly, looking at population means a lot more than just looking at the number of people; and thirdly, when we are talking about population, we are talking about people and their rights. This is what matters most of all.

So let’s look at these three points more closely to help us understand what is really going on, and what we should be focusing on to make sure that these extra 600 million people come into a world that is ready to help them lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives of dignity and meaning.

Growth is slowing

From 1950 to 1980, the population of the region grew by 1.2 billion – double what is predicted for 2019 to 2050. This was an 84 per cent increase in population, compared to a 12 per cent change between 2019 and 2050.

The reality is that although the number of people continues to increase, it does so more and more slowly.

In fact, the total fertility rate for the region is already at the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman—the rate at which population growth would stabilize over time, rather than increase.

Populations are changing shape

Fewer children means fewer people in the long run. But it also means that the age structures of the population are changing. As fewer babies are born, the share of older persons (over 65) in the population will grow.

This change is happening very quickly. Between now and 2050 the proportion of older persons is projected to grow from 13 per cent to a quarter of the region’s total population. Changes that took centuries in European countries are taking place over decades in Asian and Pacific countries. This situation is unprecedented and will have important implications for all aspects of development.

Rights and empowerment are at the heart of the changes

Underlying these shifts and our responses is the question of human rights. People are not numbers. People are rights-bearers and autonomous agents, who make decisions about their families based on deeply-held convictions about what is best for them and their families. This is recognized in the fundamental right of all people to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights”.

Sometimes, policies haven’t taken this into account, seeking instead to limit people’s choices. Such policies, in addition to violating the human rights of the people concerned, have failed.

Far more effective are those policies which recognize this right and seek to fulfil it, empowering people by providing services, accurate and appropriate information, modern contraceptives and promoting gender equality. Give people the opportunity and tools to choose responsibly, and the vast majority of them will do so.

Rights are also central to responses to changing population structures, emerging challenges such as climate change and ensuring that no one is left behind.

  • As populations age, ensuring the human rights of older persons and empowering them to contribute to society will be key.
  • Protecting people against climate change is most effective when it addresses why people are vulnerable to climate change in the first place.
  • And leaving no one behind begins when we recognize the duties owed to all members of society, and work to overcome the disadvantages put in the way of marginalized groups.

So today, as we celebrate World Population Day, let’s consider what kind of Asia-Pacific these 600 million people will come into. To make it one where they can find decent work, enjoy clean environments and benefit from good services, we need to act today to ensure the rights of all.