The continuing failure of the Demographic Transition Theory

    By Malcolm Potts | 6 February 2018
    UC Berkeley School of Public Health

    Dear friends and colleagues,

    I am glad to see criticisms of the Demographic Transition ‘Theory’. Physicist and chemists had genuine theories to predicted and explained events. Perhaps demographers felt they couldn’t be real scientists unless they had their own ‘theory.’

    Demographic Transition ‘Theory’ is a series of commonsense observations on what happened European and North American societies with nuclear families, late marriage, rising levels of education and industrialization, and a Christian tradition that framed sex as sin, contraception as immoral and induced abortion as untouchable.

    Demographers had access to mountains of data on socio-economic correlations of TFR [total fertility rate] decline which could morph into false causations of fertility decline, allowing people to talk about population change without ever mentioning anything as disgusting as sex.

    The ‘Theory’ is as relevant to current population dynamics in the Sahel as would be investing in a ski resort in the Sahara desert

    Demographers taught that, “once fertility declines are underway they tend to continue” (Bongaarts 2003). When the focus was taken off FP programs in Kenya after Cairo the TFR rose from 5.0 in 1995 to 5.21 in 2005. When scholarly analyses “demonstrated that that there is no tight link between development indicators and fertility” (Bongaarts and Watkins 1996), authors still went on to assert, “the role of socioeconomic development in accounting for fertility declines remains inherently plausible.”

    Classic demographic transition ‘theory’ has been taught to generations of demography and economics students with unfortunate consequences. The illusion that population growth will look after itself is widespread and pernicious. (If interested see attachment Do economists have frequent sex.)

    In the 1960s the UC Berkeley demographer, Kingsley Davis, used the Eurocentric ‘Theory’ to try and undermine the nascent family planning programs Rei Ravenholt was launching in USAID. More recently, the late Hans Rosling devised flat screen moving bubbles to track various measures of development in Gapminder. Melinda Gates has recorded her delight at seeing Rosling’s bubbles demonstrate correlations between wealth and education and falling TFRs. Unfortunately, Rosling’s bubbles don’t distinguish between cause and correlation. As I point out to my students – forgive the vulgarity – the fact I have several degrees does not affect my sperm count. Education correlates with smaller families, but contraception and abortion cause smaller families. Rich women can always access contraception and abortion (whether legal or not). Poor women often face insuperable barriers to family planning and end up having more children.

    Demographic Transition ‘Theory’ failed to predict the impact of two of the biggest demographic events of the past 50 years: the rapid fall in family size in countries such as S. Korea, Thailand or Iran, or why some countries in Europe and Asia had low fertility.

    A 2013 OCED important analysis and policy document on food security in West Africa illustrates the don’t worry too much about population growth attitude. A “key message” the authors set out was that “The demographic transition in West Africa is advancing.” [p 23] West Africa is described as “one of the last regions in the world to complete its demographic transition. Its high growth rates in the last few decades correspond to the start of the phase characterized by a reduction in mortality and continued high birth rates.” [p 24] West African studies 2013 (Market and Food Security. OECD Publishing). Such a ‘key message’ implies that later ‘phases’ of the demographic transition will follow. They may not. In Burkina Faso the infant mortality fell but the average family size hardly changed. In neighboring Niger, the TFR rose. Over the past 30 years agricultural production in Niger increased by 2.6% per year and population growth by 2.7% per year.

    Until well into 21st century the UN Population Division based its projections on the assumption that everyone would have 2.1 children by 2100. To achieve this high fertility countries had to have totally implausible declines in the TFR, while Greek and Japanese women suddenly decided to have more children. There was never a scrap of the data to support this assumption.

    But the real evil of the ‘Theory’ was twofold. It created an illusion that rapid population growth would solve itself, summarized in Karan Singh’s aphorism, “Development is the best contraceptive.” Second, worst of all, where rapid population was making development impossible, then the only solution the Demographic Transition Theory left open was coercion. This was the thinking that influenced the Chinese one-child policy and which led India, directly and explicitly, to the obscenity of forced sterilization.

    In April 1976 Karan Singh wrote A National Population Policy: A Statement of the Government of India, obviously approved by the prime minister. “Removing poverty” was “a top priority”. The problem was that if socio-economic progress was essential to drive down family size, and if rapid population was making it impossible to achieve the needed development, then a leader had to either watch conditions deteriorate or devise incentives to adopt family planning. Singh (1976:310) wrote:

    It is clear that simply to wait for education and economic development to bring about a drop in fertility is not a practical solution. The very increase in population makes economic development slow and more difficult of achievement. The time factor is so pressing and the population so formidable, that we have to get out of the vicious circle through a direct assault upon this problem.

    The National Population Policy put a nation-wide package of proposals in place. The age of marriage for girls was to be raised to 18, girls’ secondary education expanded and health facilities, including those for abortion, were to be improved. Finally (1976:311), monetary compensation for sterilization (both male and female) was raised to Rs.150/- [$17] if performed with two living children or less, Rs.100/- [$11] if performed with three living children and Rs.70/- [$8] if performed with four or more children.

    The plan was perceived as voluntary but it became coercive and still casts an ugly shadow over international family planning. Eight million people were sterilized in 1976, compared with four million earlier. Some operations met an existing unmet need, but very large numbers of men and women were sterilized against their will. Muslims and lower caste Hindus were targeted. Indra Gandhi lost the next election. As Vanessa Gibson notes, Karan Singh did reverse his opinions but it was to late.

    We know less about the thinking behind the Chinese one-child policy but we do know that one of the few western, outside writings influencing the Chinese was the 1972 Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). This cited Spengler (1966) who placed an unambiguous emphasis that development is the best contraceptive:

    The relation between crude birth rate and GNP per capita of all nations in the world follows a surprisingly regular pattern. In general, as GNP rises, the birth rate falls. This appears to be true despite difference in religious, cultural or political factors.

    Poignantly, the most vocal proponents of human rights at the 1994 ICPD remain wedded to “development is the best contraceptive”. Hodgson and Watkins (1997) saw the ICPD having adopted the paradigm:

    … that fertility decline was a consequence of the developmental process and not a catalyst, as the only way to insure its occurrence was by the indirect route of promoting development. Such a vision of fertility decline as a necessary consequence, not a cause, of large societal changes was to provide the frame that feminists would modify for later use at the 1994 Cairo conference.

    At its most radical, this vision of reproductive rights even suggests that anyone (the authors called them neo-Malthusians) “asserting the efficacy of birth control activities at the societal” level or “lobbying for special funds for family planning” as “an infringement of reproductive rights” (Hodgson and Watkins 1997).

    This is an extreme and potentially evil philosophy adopting the framework that helped lead to coercive family planning policies in India and possibly also China. The starting place for thinking about population dynamics should be that in the modern world the default position for a normal heterosexual couple is a large family unless individuals have access to the means to separate sex from child bearing.

    For those who still think development (especially education and wealth) is the best contraceptive consider Queen Victoria. She was well educated and the richest woman in the world. She hated being pregnant and thought breastfeeding “disgusting.” But she and Prince Albert had a loving sex life but no knowledge or access to contraception. No courtier was going to say, “Excuse me your Imperial Majesty would you like me to buy Prince Albert some condoms in the Charing Cross Road?” As a result, the TFR in Buckingham Palace (Victoria had 9 children) was higher than in Burkina Faso today (TFR 5.7).

    Malcolm Potts is a Cambridge trained obstetrician and reproductive scientist. He is the first holder of the Fred H. Bixby endowed chair in Population and Family Planning in the School of Public Health, Berkeley. As CEO of Family Health International (FHI), he launched the first large scale studies of maternal mortality, which helped start the worldwide Safe Motherhood Initiative. He has published ten books and over 200 scientific papers.

    Malcolm Potts – Dean’s Speaker Series

    Paul Gilding: The Earth is full

    Vatican control of World Health Organization population policy: An interview with Milton P. Siegel

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    1. Surely by now there is a moral point of view that so few seem to consider. Which child out there in happy oblivion would choose to join us on a planet where?

      – The climate is changing rapidly and we are now subjected to its violent swings
      – All is polluted from deepest soils, to seas, to rivers, to atmosphere, to space, to cyberspace, to our own bodies
      – Conflicts are brewing everywhere because on one side there are masses of migrants and on the other side
      residents are already sitting on top of each other
      – Conflicts are brewing because resources, water for starters are running out
      – Other species hardly have any habitat left to lead their lives which are as precious as ours
      – Earth's beauty has been utterly degraded and its surface will soon ressemble that of Mars
      which means Elon Musketeer doesn't need to spend our precious ressources going there as he'll find it here

      Not having children is the best thing I have done, for my children and for my own conscience…

    2. In Addition to all the good ideas discussed above to manage the world's population, a couple of missing ones:
      1. we need another economic system, the present one based on constant growth is bound to fail (is already) given that the natural resources are limited…and technology won't fix that,
      2. who are we in the developed world to say that the folks in the developing countries need to reduce population growth, a growth which we had in our own developed countries in the past centuries and are now consuming about 20X more natural resources per person than in the developing countries.

      Yes we need to tackle the problem head on here and there….and now.That means an entire new dialogue with the decision makers around the globe about the population issues. The worry now emerging in Europe that there won't be enough people to fuel the social security system is already pushing governments to promote birth rates…… I guess that there is also the "power" issue for countries that need soldiers, workers and tax payers.

      We need to be able to speak from a high moral standing regarding the need to slow down the population growth in the developing countries and also stop the rhetoric of needing more people in the developed ones; I am afraid that this is hard to find.

      The world has agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015, the agenda 2030 is what we need to concentrate on right now…every country has signed on and if they would pay attention to the realization of all the goals, we would create more equity and also reduce mortality at birth, have better health, better food, less pollution etc…..all that would go long ways to save the planet and all its inhabitants. So far I have seen little enthusiasm from governments and the international community. Each more concerned about their own little survival, than a long term solution. Until we start thinking and acting in system, little will change. Everything is connected, very action creates a reaction….most of the times in the wrong direction, after some time. There are tools that can help our limited brain power, System Dynamics modeling for example……


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