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by Lester R. Brown, Pres., Earth Policy Institute


The 21st century began on an inspiring note when the countries that belong to the United Nations adopted the goal of cutting the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. And as of 2005, the world is ahead of schedule for reaching this goal. Two big reasons are China and India. China’s economic growth of 9 percent a year over the last quarter-century and India’s acceleration to close to 6 percent a year over the last decade are together lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

In China, the number of people living in poverty dropped from 648 million in 1981 to 218 million in 2001, the greatest reduction in poverty in history. India is also making impressive progress on the economic front. Under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took office in 2004, poverty is being attacked directly by upgrading infrastructure at the village level. Targeted investments are aimed at the poorest of the poor. If the international community actively reinforces this effort in reform-minded India, hundreds of millions more could be lifted out of poverty.

Several countries in Southeast Asia are making impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. Barring any major economic setbacks, these gains in Asia virtually ensure that the U.N. Millennium Development Goal for reducing poverty by 2015 will be reached.

That is the good news. The bad news is that sub-Saharan Africa—with 750 million people—is sliding deeper into poverty. Hunger, illiteracy, and disease are on the march, offsetting some of the gains in China and India. Africa, in particular, needs special attention.

Many countries that have experienced rapid population growth for several decades are showing signs of demographic fatigue. Countries struggling with the simultaneous challenge of educating growing numbers of children, creating jobs for swelling ranks of young job seekers, and dealing with the environmental effects of population growth are stretched to the limit. When a major new threat arises—such as the HIV epidemic—governments often cannot cope.

Problems routinely managed in industrial societies are becoming full-scale humanitarian crises in developing ones. The rise in deaths in many African countries marks a tragic new development in world demography. In the absence of a concerted effort by national governments and the international community to accelerate the shift to smaller families, events in many countries could spiral out of control, leading to more death and to spreading political instability and economic decline.
There is an alternative to this bleak prospect, and that is to help countries that want to slow their population growth to do so quickly.

In an increasingly integrated world, eradicating poverty and stabilizing population are national security issues. Slowing population growth helps eradicate poverty and its distressing symptoms, and eradicating poverty helps slow population growth. With time running out, the urgency of moving simultaneously on both fronts is clear.



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