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
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
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.