Monday, August 23, 2010

Where has fertility dropped the most?

According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators database, the world's average total fertility rate dropped 6.6 percent from 2000 to 2008, from 2.72 to 2.54 children per woman. Needless to say, this is one of the most important developments of our time. Around the world, fertility rates have changed much more quickly than expected, relieving us—at a global level, at least—of the fear of overpopulation.

What countries have experienced the largest individual drops in fertility? Among nations with populations above 5 million, they are:

Country20002008% decline
Nepal4.002.90-27.4
Saudi Arabia4.203.12-25.6
Cambodia3.882.91-24.9
Laos4.583.47-24.1
Bangladesh4.583.47-24.1
Mexico2.702.10-22.2
El Salvador2.932.32-20.9
Burundi5.774.59-20.5
Brazil2.361.88-20.5
Iraq5.024.05-19.3

It's hard to draw specific conclusions from data that shows declines in fertility happening all around the world—there aren't many commonalities between Brazil and Cambodia, and all these countries are starting from very different levels of initial fertility. The impact of these changes, however, is almost impossible to overstate. If the data for Mexico is correct, its fertility is now roughly the same as the United States'! El Salvador, the second largest source of Central American immigrants, isn't far behind. The impoverished but rapidly improving Southeast Asian nations of Cambodia and Laos are beginning to see fertility rates consistent with sustained prosperity, while Brazil is cementing its status as a middle-income country with a rate as low as many developed nations'.

The only dim spot in these statistics is that a few nations still have still have so far to go. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, saw a drop in fertility of 6.91 to 6.03 over the same eight years—an decline of almost thirteen percent! Yet even at this blistering pace, Congo would need four and a half decades to fall to 3 children per woman. With luck, change in countries like Congo will accelerate, but sheer inertia makes a massive (and potentially crippling) rise in population inevitable.

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