Population, Poverty, and Economic Growth

February 02, 2010
Rachel NugentMy guest this week is Rachel Nugent, deputy director for global health here at the Center for Global Development. Rachel directs the Center's work looking at the links between population, poverty, and economic growth and serves as the coordinator of the Population and Poverty Research Network, which held its fourth annual conference recently in Cape Town, South Africa.

Many of us are familiar with how development influences population growth: as incomes rise, fertility rates and average family size tend to fall; populations grow more slowly. Rachel explains that while this relationship is important there are many important unanswered questions about how population policies affect development outcomes. For example: if a poor country slows population growth by actively encouraging family planning, will the families involved and the nation reap economic benefits? Under what circumstances?

In the Wonkcast, besides discussing these questions we also consider why population policy has been a radioactive subject for many developing countries and donors alike.

“To talk about population control is really to get a lot of people very nervous,” Rachel tells me. “Understandably, there was pushback from developing countries that they didn’t need to have outsiders telling them that they should control their populations—and how many children they should have.”

The PopPov Research Network, Rachel explains, aims to lift the taboo on population policy discussions by sponsoring rigorous, highly-credible studies that can inform developing country policymakers. The network now includes more than 200 researchers engaged in over 60 projects. Most of the projects are in Africa, a region with wide variation in population growth rates, including countries with some of the world’s highest birth rates.

In the closing minutes of our conversation, Rachel describes some of the research that the PopPov network has helped to fund and shares one of her favorite presentations from the network's recent conference in Cape Town. The presentation (by Robert Eastwood and Michael Lipton of the University of Sussex) focuses on the “demographic dividend” that can accrue to countries when birth rates and thus the “dependency ratio” (the number of children and old people per working age adult) fall.

In East Asia, the demographic dividend is credited with helping to drive very rapid rates of growth. The Eastwood and Lipton study found that in Africa, even in countries where dependency rates are falling, savings rates are too low to generate the new investments needed to give those extra workers productive jobs.

Listen to the Wonkcast to hear the interview. Have something to add to the discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.