Interview with Joseph Chamie: Population and the Seven Billionth Person Milestone

“The number seven billion represents a complex set of issues: fertility, mortality, migration, aging, urbanization,” said Joseph Chamie, Director of Research at the Center for Migration Studies, commenting on today’s demographic milestone of seven billion people on Earth.

In this interview, Mr. Chamie, who served the UN in the field of population and development for more than 25 years, discussed changes in the distribution of populations around the world and the role of women in society; the connection between demographics and violence; the Arab uprisings; and shifts in demographics and their impact on poverty reduction and health.

Mr. Chamie also said that the rapid population growth of the twentieth century was unlikely to be repeated in the twenty-first century.

“What is likely to happen in the twenty-first century, the major demographic issue, is population aging–dealing with an older population,” he said.

Mr. Chamie was interviewed on October, 25, 2011 by Francesco Mancini, Director of Research at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Francesco Mancini (FM): Joseph Chamie is the former Director of the UN Population Division and currently Research Director at the Center for Migration Studies. Thank you very much for joining the Global Observatory.

Today, the United Nations announces the birth of the 7 billionth person on planet Earth. What does that actually mean for us? Why should we care?

Joseph Chamie (JC): This marking of this demographic milestone of a world population of seven billion is largely symbolic. The date of seven billion is calculated—we know that population is larger than it’s ever been before and the date is an approximation. To mark this, we are concerned, as we have always been, with population numbers, their composition, their distribution. So, it’s very important to take an assessment and look into some of the details.

The number seven billion represents a complex set of issues: fertility, mortality, migration, aging, urbanization. So, it’s only the tip of the demographic iceberg. There’s much more that needs to be looked at, including, as I mentioned, those demographic components, as well as the distribution, the growth rate, aging. All these issues are of concern, and the more we know about these issues, the better we are able to plan and provide good living conditions for people all over the world.

FM: Let’s be more specific. You mentioned the distribution. A lot of attention goes on the absolute population numbers. However, we know that fertility rates are very different from one country to the other. In fact, the distribution of population across continents is dramatically changing. What is the importance of these relative changes? For example, what does it mean to have Africa’s population grow to five times that of Europe’s by the end of the century?

JC: It is important to understand what is causing this dynamic, and why we’re getting larger population and redistribution and various things. It’s a very simple process, because there are three ingredients to population change: fertility, mortality, and migration. In the very beginning, 200,000 years ago, people were dying very early, and often, because of high mortality, they had high births. So, every group at that time, had to have large numbers of children in order to sustain their tribe, their group, their population.

These people in Eastern Africa moved out of that region—the homo sapiens—and started populating the world. Then, around the Industrial Revolution, something wonderful started happening – mortality rates came down. This decline in mortality, I believe, is humanity’s greatest achievement, bringing down death rates, so children, and mothers, and adults, and grandparents, all survived to long, old ages, and a healthy lifestyle.

The difference between the fertility rate and the declining mortality resulted in this rapid growth. That’s what we’re seeing in this transition. Europe went through it first; then it spread to North America; then it spread to Asia; now it’s going to Africa. So, Africa will experience a great deal of growth—as the Europeans did, and the North Americans, and the Asians, last, until they bring their fertility rates down. This means we’ll see a redistribution. As you pointed out, Europe was proportionally, for centuries, about a quarter of the world’s population. Now it’s only half that —twelve percent—and in the future it will be halved again, to 6 or 7 percent of the world’s population. This is enormously important—shifting of the population distribution. Africa, because it’s the last continent going through this transition, has enormous growth potential. Mid-century, there were about 230 million; at the end of the century, there were a billion. The United Nations expects that by the end of the twenty-first century they could be several billion. Nigeria alone, according to projections, could be larger than Europe.

But it’s a complex phenomenon. Some countries have birth rates below replacement, less than two children – many of the European countries, Russia, China, and many others. There are some sixty countries that have a birth rate below two children per woman. Other countries have five, six, or seven children per woman.

So, it’s a very complex situation. We are looking at great diversity, and because of this diversity, we are going to have a change in the composition which will have repercussions, implications, for politics, development, food crises, culture, music. Everything will be changing because as you change the distribution of people, those cultures that increase will have bigger weight. Those that decrease will start declining.

And you see it repeatedly, over and over, with tastes. One clear example I’m familiar with is, in the United States when I was growing up and you went to a restaurant, you would see ketchup on the table. These days you go to a restaurant, you’re often seeing salsa, because of the large migration from Mexico and other Central American countries. This is happening all over the world.

FM: You mentioned development. In the past, it was believed that population growth was needed for economic growth. We know that today this is not necessarily the case anymore. What are the implications of so many people on economic development, especially on the global fight to reduce poverty and improve global health?

JC: You have to be very clear, because there are many skeptics about this, economists. Of course, if the death rate is high, and you have people dying off, you are not going to have economic growth. You have to have a low death rate for development. That’s one of the indicators that many institutions, the United Nations Development Programme, the UN, the European Union, it’s always: low mortality is a good indicator of development. That means then, that you have to have some kind of semblance of a balance. If you are declining, having few children, and the population is declining, there are other challenges.

You are correct. You don’t have to have rapid growth in order to have economic growth. We have many examples: Japan, Germany. They are growing economically very well, compared to some other countries, some African countries like Mali, Uganda, that are growing demographically very rapidly but their economy is not growing very rapidly. So, we have different models. You can export, you can start investing in your human resources, you can innovate. The most rapidly growing populations in the world today are not the ones that are doing the best economically. We are moving away from that model.

Another thing that is very important—we are moving away from the argument that quantity is the best. Sometimes you want quality, not quantity. There are other considerations as well with regard to this. You can invest in the environment, you can invest in clean energy. It is not necessarily more people, but it is changing the quality of life.

FM: Another factor is peace, security, and stability. Is there a connection between violence and demographics?

JC: It’s not a sufficient variable, but it does play a role. You have, in the past, rapidly growing countries in Europe, North America, Canada, Australia, and you did not have war. Other times, you have in Europe, many countries not growing at all, and they go to war. Simply because you have a growing population does not mean you are going to have war.

However, when the population is growing rapidly and there are other issues that have a bearing on it, such as water, food, land, then a growing population exacerbates a situation. You have to adjust rapidly to these changes; you have competition sometimes, for limited resources.

So yes, a rapidly growing population, under certain circumstances of constraint, can lead to civil unrest and war, especially when it comes to quantities—and we’ve seen this before, wars along borders, rivers, resources, tribes in these countries. We look in the past, the European expansion. What did they do with their excess population in Europe? They exported it: to North America, South America, and Australia. All that extra population growth – where did it go? It went to New York, it went to Florida, it went to Brazil, it went to Australia, it went to Texas, at the expense of the people who were there. This is part of history: rapidly growing population has consequences and, at times, when the resources and circumstances are right, it can lead to violence and war.

That’s why we are trying to expedite the transition to bring down the birth rates, so they are in harmony with the death rates. In the past, we had high birth rates, high death rates. The transition, when the death rates came down, the birth rates stayed high, we had very rapid growth. Now we are moving to the situation, we have low birth rates, low death rates, some kind of stability.

FM: It seems to imply that there is some way to influence demographics. In other words, demographics is not destiny. Are there policies to slow down population growth? What kind of alternatives do we have to alleviate the pressure of so many people on the planet?

JC: Governments have always had policies to influence demographics: immunization, public health, they have always tried to influence mortality levels. It doesn’t matter if the country is communist, capitalist, socialist, free-wheeling; they all try to reduce their mortality rates to have their citizens and their families live healthy, long lives. In addition, countries today all have policies on immigration—there are very few examples I can think of, of open borders and people can come and go as they wish. Every government has borders—or regions like the European Union—you need documents to go through, passports, visas, and so on.

The area that is of concern for most people is with policies with regard to fertility. This often challenges religious doctrine, it challenges many issues of family, who’s in charge, and so on. But there are also many benefits—sometimes they give you tax deductions if you have children, sometimes they give you incentives, you get certain monthly bonuses if you have certain children. Other times, they provide other types of incentives, such as pre-school, after school, they provide maternity/paternity leave. Some are generous, some are not. We can influence those with incentives and disincentives, and we have seen those. The most radical example, of course, is China, with their one-child policy where they made very clear they were wishing to reduce fertility. Aside from the human rights issue, most people view that it was a rather effective policy despite the fact that the rates were coming down anyway. I think the Chinese, in this case, will probably relax their policy in the future, because of the distortions in the age structure and also, the repercussions it is going to be having on their labor force, and also the ratio of their elderly to the workers.

All countries have some policy—some direct, some indirect—with regard to fertility, and most are aiming to achieve what the UN has endorsed, which is, the right of couples and individuals to choose the number and spacing of their children. Once that happens, you usually find a small family size. You look in the Americas, you look in the Pacific, East Asia – all these rates are coming down. You even see them in diverse areas – Vietnam, Iran, Algeria, Turkey, Brazil. You’re seeing small families.

There are many pressures: urbanization, the high cost, emphasis on education. So, governments are assisting them, and we have some cases where the fertility has gone very low, and governments are trying to raise fertility, by encouraging couples to marry, to have children. We have Singapore with love boats—they encourage couples to come on the boats and meet and have children. There are other incentives being given in Europe now to enhance couples and tell them to have children. We have even heard countries like Australia, saying ‘have one for mum, one for dad, and one for the government,’ in order to raise the birth rates. It is diverse, and sometimes, you see examples where governments are trying to raise the fertility rates, but in most cases now, especially in Africa and Asia, the concern is with high growth, because of the implications and consequences it has for development and peace and security, in those areas which are very critical at this point in terms of development.

FM: When you mention family, we cannot avoid thinking about the role of women in society. What do you think has been the impact of the changing role of women on society?

JC: One of the most dramatic changes at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century is the changing role and status of women. It is absolutely incredible; I think historians will look back, say this is a remarkable period. It has impacted every possible aspect of human life. It’s affected the household, it’s affected the state, it’s affected international relations. Educating women has basically doubled the CPU power of the human species. We have now women participating in every possible area of human activity – they are going to colleges, they are taking employment, they have careers, and this, I think, is consistent with human rights, and also, it is important for societal development.

It has affected demographics. As women become educated and become fully integrated into society, they have more control over their reproduction, more control over their own decisions, rather than having it imposed upon them, as we see in much of the past. This development is spreading worldwide. I don’t think it is going to be stopped. There are certain areas of resistance, certain traditional communities and leaders are resisting this, but it is going to be happening all over the world. We will see the repercussions everywhere.

When you educate women, you basically educate children as well. Educating mothers, educating aunts, educating grandmothers tends to trickle down to children, grandchildren, to society and I think this is all for the good.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, with regard to the population growth, that the twentieth century was the rapid growth. The population quadrupled. That is unlikely to happen in the twenty-first century. What is likely to happen in the twenty-first century, the major demographic issue is population aging – dealing with an older population, how to deal with them. We are seeing this in country after country, with pensions being slashed, health entitlements—with severe budget deficits, this is a big constraint, and this is going to affect, especially women.

As you know, women biologically outlive men, they live longer. If they are married, the wife usually survives her husband, and so we are going to see this effect of aging be especially burdensome on women, who are the major caregivers, and also the dominant majority, among those above eighty years old.

FM: In conclusion, let me ask you a question on the situation in the Arab world. Some have pointed to population shifts as a major force behind the so-called “Arab Spring.” Is this the case? If so, how?

JC: I think certainly, there was a major demographic component to the Arab Spring. Large numbers of youth, unemployed, unmarried, in urban centers. We have seen, of course, rapid urbanization of the world. This has especially been the case among the Arab countries. You take a city like Sana’a, you see it is a small town in the late 1970s, 1980, of several hundred thousand. Now, it is several million. Same with Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia: it is 400,000, and all of a sudden, it is several million. Rapid growth, and concentration of young men and women, who are looking for work, many of them educated, and they cannot find employment, they cannot get married because they do not have employment, they cannot set up a household. Great frustration, and it makes a big difference.

The example I give often is if you are in the middle of a farm in Kansas and you are protesting, you may get the attention of a few cows. But if you are in Manhattan, or Riyadh, or Cairo, or Tunis, and you start marching with a poster, you will find hundreds following you. These people who are young, are energetic, and they are concentrated, so it had a very large impact.

Now, countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many of the other Gulf countries are growing very rapidly. It is not only because of the large numbers of people in the reproductive ages and high fertility relatively, but they also have immigration in the Gulf states and these places. That is also contributing to factors. Laid upon this also, in some countries, are the demographic differentials by tribe, by religious group, by ethnic group, and this also has to be taken into account.

But absolutely, the demographic component, the youth bulge, and the large numbers of young men and women, unemployed, unmarried, and looking for changes had a very large role in this. We know the spark that caused this; we know the underlying factors, and we are going to continue seeing this type of thing until there is some kind of resolution in these countries, with regard to development.

FM: Thank you very much, it has been a pleasure talking to you.