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Population & development

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Activity 5
  • Reflection


The topic of Population and Development is linked to the controversial North-South debate over the relative role of population numbers and resource consumption in threatening global sustainability. For example, are many countries in the South over-populated? Or are resource consumption rates in the North a key problem?

These aspects of Population and Development are analysed in depth in two other modules: Module 9 on sustainable consumption and Module 14 on world hunger.

The topic of Population and Development can be among the most difficult to teach. This is because population issues are related to so many other topics, such as demography, economics, urbanisation, gender, religion, politics, food and nutrition, health and human rights to name just a few. This can make it hard to decide where to start, and how to plan a balanced sequence of concepts and themes to match the developmental needs and interests of primary and secondary school students.

Population and Development is also a sensitive topic to teach: it involves a consideration of family planning issues – and there are important religious and political views about this in many countries.

Teachers also have personal views on these matters, and it is important to be aware of professionally ethical ways of teaching a sensitive topic such as Population and Development. One activity in the module on values education helps clarify appropriate principles for doing this.


  • To recognise major trends and issues in global population dynamics;
  • To clarify the importance of population issues in relation to sustainable development;
  • To appreciate the significance of the ‘new understanding’ of the dynamic population-environment-development interrelationship;
  • To recognise the significance of gender and human rights in population issues; and
  • To identify challenges, opportunities and resources for teaching about Population and Development.


  1. Global population patterns and trends
  2. Understanding population growth rates
  3. Population and sustainable development
  4. A new understanding of population and development
  5. Social development and human rights
  6. Reflection


Brown, L., Gardner, G. and Halweilm, B. (1999) Beyond Malthus: Nineteen Dimensions of the Population Challenge, W.W. Norton, New York.

Chapman, A., Morgan, R. Smith and Petersen, R. (eds) (1999) Consumption, Population, and Sustainability : Perspectives from Science and Religion, Island Press, Washington DC.

Guzmán, J.M., Martine, G., McGranahan, G., Schensul, D. and Tacoli, C. (2009) Population Dynamics and Climate Change, UNFPA and IIED.

Lutz, W., Sanderson, W.C. and Scherbov, S. (eds) (2004) The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London.

Singh, J.S. (2009) Creating a New Consensus on Population. The Politics of Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights, and Women’s Empowerment, Earthscan.

UNESCO (1999) Education and Population Dynamics: Mobilising Minds for a Sustainable Future, UNESCO, Paris.

UNFPA (Annual) The State of the World Population Annual Report, United Nations Population Fund, New York.

UNFPA and WEDO (2009) Climate Change Connections. A Resource Kit on Climate, Population and Gender.

Internet Sites

Converstations for a Better World

Human Development Report - Statistics

Population and Development Indicators for Asia and the Pacific

United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN)

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien and draws on resources from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Development Education Program (DEP) of the World Bank.

Global population patterns and trends

As explained in the introduction to this module, Population and Development is a difficult and often sensitive topic to teach. Fortunately, it is also a topic that teachers often know a lot about.

Test your knowledge of global population patterns and trends.

Despite the knowledge we already have, Population and Development is an area where knowledge is constantly changing. Indeed, the last century has witnessed unprecedented changes in population dynamics, living standards and other indictors of human well-being. Thus, it is very important to keep up-to-date on changing patterns and trends. The Internet sites listed at the beginning of this module are very good for this.

A key resource is the annual State of the World Population Report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). As well as providing detailed tables and statistics, the UNFPA Report monitors key patterns and trends. Ten key patterns and trends are:

Source: United Nations Population Fund.

See further details on these and other population patterns and trends at POPIN – the United Nations Population Information Network.

Understanding population growth rates

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The population of the world grew from 1.6 billion in 1990 to 6 billion at the beginning of 2000. By the beginning of 2010, the world’s population was getting close to 7 billion – that is almost one billion people added to the total world population in the space of a decade.

Source: New Internationalist, Issue 309, January 1999.

The topic of population growth rates is, perhaps, one of the most complex population concepts to understand and teach. For example:

  • How can fertility rates, infant mortality rates and population growth rates be falling, but the world’s population still be growing?
  • If death rates are falling and people are living longer, why will population growth continue?
  • If families are getting smaller, why is the world’s population still growing?

Answering such questions involves distinguishing between percentage rates of change and actual population numbers.

It also involves appreciating the population momentum of past population patterns, particularly the population growth impacts of the relatively youthful nature of the high population countries of the world.

The World Bank’s Development Education Program has developed an on-line interactive learning module for explaining these issues about population growth rates to students. This learning module contains maps, tables and population pyramid graphs, as well as a sequenced set of student questions. The Development Education Program has also produced interactive learning modules on other topics, such as Life Expectancy for Children at Birth, GNP per Capita and Access to Safe Water.

Review the learning module on Population Growth Rates for possible use with a class that you teach.

To begin, read the sections called ‘Getting Started’ and ‘For Teachers’ in order to understand how to navigate through the learning module and to see the range of worksheets that can be printed for student use.

Then go to the ‘Learning Tools’ section and review the range of student activities that are provided.

After you have reviewed this learning module, answer the following questions:

Q1: In what class level(s) and subject(s) could this teaching module be used?

Q2: What prior learning would you plan for your students so that their study of this module is most beneficial?

Q3: Would you be able to use it in your teaching? Why? How might you organise your class to access the module?

Q4: What are some non-computer based ways in which the topic of population growth rates could be taught?

Note: Paper versions of many of the exercises in the Population Growth Rates learning module are located at the end of the on-line version. These can be downloaded and printed for class use.

UNESCO acknowledges the support of The World Bank’s Development Education Program in the development of this activity, and for allowing the files for Population Growth Rates to be included in Teaching and Learning For a Sustainable Future.

Population and sustainable development

Sustainable development is a process through which people can satisfy their needs and improve their quality of life in the present but not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

For most people, aspiring to a better quality of life means improving their standards of living as measured by income level and use of resources and technology. However, sustainable development also requires equity. For example, economic and environmental goals will not be sustainable unless social goals – such as universal access to education, health care and economic opportunity – are also achieved.

At any level of development, human impact (I) on the environment is a function of population size (P), per capita consumption (C) and the environmental damage caused by the technology (T) used to produce what is consumed. This relationship is often described as a formula:

I = P x C x T

Currently, people living in the North have the greatest impact on the global environment. However, as standards of living rise in the South, the environmental consequences of population growth will increase. Ever-increasing numbers of people aspiring, justifiably, to ‘live better’, also increases the potential for damage to the environment beyond what we are already witnessing.

The debate over the environmental challenges of population growth cannot be reduced to assigning blame. Patterns of consumption and resource use in the industrialised countries of the North are certainly responsible for much environmental degradation in both the North and South. However, growing populations, whatever their levels of consumption, also place a burden on resources and the environment. Both current and new consumers need to address the consequences of their levels of consumption (see Module 9).

The difficulty in teaching about this issue is that the answers are neither simple nor complete.

The most obvious environmental impacts are usually local – such as the disappearance of forests and associated watersheds, soil erosion or desertification or the brown haze hovering over many cities. Less obvious are the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the decline of fish catches around the world and the pollution of land and water resources with chemicals and other hazardous materials.

The lack of data – including baseline data – to help researchers determine trends and accurately measure what is happening further complicates the issue. This lack of data reflects the relative youth of environmental science as an interdisciplinary field.

Some trends are already obvious, however, particularly with regard to the resources on which human life depends: land, water, air and biodiversity. These trends also have major impacts on levels of energy consumption and urbanisation.

The impact of population growth in rural areas can push communities into unsustainable practices, such as the burning and cutting down of tropical forests in order to plant crops, over-cropping and subsequent depletion of fragile arable land and over-pumping of groundwater. In rapidly growing cities, people without access to running water and basic sanitation are vulnerable to diseases borne by contaminated water and animal pests. And the intersection of rural and urban areas is a kind of battleground, with farmland nearly always the loser.

Compounding the environmental challenges facing us all are the needs of more than 1 billion people living in absolute poverty around the world. Without higher standards of living, over a fifth of the world’s people and their children will continue to exist in conditions of malnutrition, disease and poverty.

Source: United Nations Population Fund.

Gauging the Impact

As shown in the formula (I = P x C x T), the impact on the environment (I) of population size and growth rates (P) is related to the consumption levels (C) in an economic system and the types of technology (T) used to produce the goods and services that are consumed.

This complex relationship was identified by the World Conservation Union when it said:

Population growth, urban industrial society, economic development, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity form a seamless web. Each is both a cause and effect of the other. None can be effectively addressed in isolation from the others.

Source: Our People, Our Resources, IUCN: The World Conservation Union, Gland, 1997.

Which of the environmental impacts of population growth interest you the most? Select three to study in detail.

Regional Dynamics

The dynamics of the environment-population-development relationship result in different outcomes in different parts of the world. This means that population decline in a region or country can either improve environmental conditions or degrade them. Similarly, population increases in a region can have either positive or negative impacts depending upon local social, economic and political conditions.

Four case studies – from Asia, Europe and Latin America – illustrate the complex relationships between population change and environmental change:

Curitiba – Brazil

Curitiba, Brazil has become known as the world’s greenest city. Although its population has more than doubled in the past generation, the city’s environment has been greatly enhanced, increasing the wealth and the welfare of its citizens. Among other things, the city government planned housing and work locations to provide high quality living and working space, with efficient rapid transit systems connecting them. It has also developed a distinctive garbage collection system for the slum areas, where the government exchanges bags of food for garbage that people collect from their own neighbourhoods. Good urban planning promoted the well being of both people and their environment.

Rural Japan and Alpine Europe

The exodus of people from rural Japan and alpine Europe may be reducing biodiversity. Many rural populations in the more developed regions are ageing and not replacing themselves as young people move to the towns and larger urban areas. While conclusive evidence is lacking, it is possible that this exodus reduces biodiversity. In Europe, farms that once grew a variety of crops and supported a large number of wild bird and animal species have been abandoned, leaving the land to return to more uniform habitats with fewer species. In Japan, abandoned rice fields destroy wetlands that once supported a wide range of wild species and did much to purify water.

Thailand Gibbon Sanctuary

Development programmes in Thailand have extended primary health care, education and good family planning services to the rural areas. Together with the fast pace of economic development, this has produced one of the most rapid declines in fertility known in the modern era. One result is that the population surrounding a protected area – the habitat of an endangered gibbon – has stabilised and begun to decline, reducing the pressure on the gibbon habitat and enhancing the local environment.

Himalayan Deforestation and Ganges Siltation

The deforestation of the Himalayas which causes siltation in the Ganges River represents one of the most commonly perceived effects of rapid population growth. Under conditions of subsistence agriculture, and using wood for fuel, rapid population growth has had a devastating effect on the foothills of the Himalayas. Marginal land is cleared for farming and trees are cut for fuelwood. The resulting deforestation produces soil erosion, reduced farmer income, and downstream siltation of the Ganges River. This region has received little or no government investments to help improve farming practices or to increase the welfare of the people through education, health, and family planning services.

Source: Environmental for People; Building Bridges for Sustainable Development, UNFPA, New York, 1997, p. 3.

Analyse the relationship between population change and environmental change in these four case studies.

A new understanding of population and development

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

International recognition of the issues studied so far in this module – world population patterns and trends, population growth dynamics and sustainable development – has led to a ‘new understanding’ of population and development.

This ‘new understanding’ has five elements:

  • Past concerns about ‘over-population’ were misguided
  • Past campaigns for family planning were too narrow
  • Population, consumption and environment are inextricably inter-linked
  • Social development, especially for women, is paramount
  • The rights of the present generation counts.

Source: Adapted from: Population and Sustainable Development: Five Years after Rio, UNFPA, New York, 1997, pp. 1-7.

Six Conferences – One Voice

This ‘new understanding’ is the result of six major international conferences convened by the United Nations during the 1990s.

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – Rio de Janeiro, 1992
International Conference on Population and Development – Cairo, 1994
The World Summit for Social Development – Copenhagen, 1995
Fourth World Conference on Women – Beijing, 1995
United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) – Istanbul, 1996
World Food Summit – Rome, 1996

Read a summary of what each of these conferences agreed about Population and Development (‘Click’ the conference logos).

Curriculum Application

Identify ways in which this ‘new understanding’ on Population and Development can be integrated into classroom teaching:

Q5: What elements of the ‘old understanding’ were you taught at school? Are they still in the curriculum?

Q6: How does the ‘old understanding’ contrast with the ‘new understanding’?

Q7: What role has the media played in promoting the ‘old understanding’?

Q8: What elements of the ‘new understanding’ are now included in the curriculum in your country? In what subject? At what year levels?

Social development and human rights

Several strategies have been developed to address the environmental and development problems caused by population issues. Many of these focus on social development and human rights:

Slowing population growth
The gradual slowing of population growth, already under way, is part of the answer to the environmental dilemma. With slower growth rates, countries will have more time to prepare for the still inevitable, if smaller, population increases to come.
Building North-South partnerships
North-South partnerships were seen as vital at all six international conferences. Northern countries need to push their industries toward efficiency and develop technologies which minimise damage to natural systems – and then make these new technologies widely available in the South. For both North and South the ultimate goal should be sustainability in all areas of economic activity, including agriculture, industry, forestry, fisheries, transportation and tourism.
Ending poverty
North-South co-operation is also vital to success in ending poverty. For those struggling to make a living, whether on a steeply sloped eroding hillsides or in crowded informal settlements, environmentally sound practices are a luxury. As one Egyptian environmental activist said:
“You can’t ask people to dispose of garbage properly if there’s nowhere to put it; you can’t really talk about water conservation without the technology to make it happen. The fact is that there are few alternatives to the way most people currently live their lives.”
Creating a favourable economic climate
A favourable economic climate, featuring improved and reliable access to Northern markets, debt reduction and an increased flow of financial resources from North to South (by way of both foreign direct investment and aid for development), is vital to the success of efforts to alleviate poverty.

Source: United Nations Population Fund.

Women and Social Development

Alleviating the effects of poverty, and supporting the trend toward slower population growth, cannot happen without programmes of social development, especially for women. This is because women are often the most affected by – and most able to affect – environmental degradation and poverty at the local level.

In every part of the world, women are primarily responsible for fetching water, gathering fuel and preparing food. Women in rural areas are also often responsible for the small farm animals and growing food crops. Yet, women rarely have ownership or control of natural resources.

In addition, projects to change environmentally unsound practices or improve agricultural productivity often direct their efforts at men rather than women. As a result, women have less access to credit, training and technological innovations.

Given the resource management skills that women exercise, while also – in most cultures – having primary responsibility for the care and raising of children, women operate under severe constraints. For example, women make up two-thirds of the world’s poorest people and are nearly twice as likely as men not to be able to read and write. They receive less education and less food, and have fewer legal rights.

Removing the constraints on women’s effectiveness as resource managers – through education, access to credit and land, and the enforcement of legal rights – would not only benefit women as individuals, it would also contribute to the environmental and economic well-being of their families and communities.

Research in countries as diverse as Cote d’lvoire, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka shows that women are more likely than men to spend their earnings on food, clothes and other basic needs when they have control over economic resources such as land, income or credit.

Women’s roles as environmental managers can also be enhanced by access to information and technology, as was seen in Lima, Peru, where women in one poor neighbourhood distributed information and undertook a clean-up campaign in a successful effort to protect their community against a major cholera epidemic.

Education, basic health care – including family planning and other reproductive health care – and access to productive resources (land, credit, employment, etc.) are important to poverty alleviation and long term social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Source: United Nations Population Fund.

Women, Population and Human Rights

Throughout the human lifespan – from birth to old age – we have different health needs and rights. In a sustainable society, these rights would include:

  • Pre- and post- natal care
  • Education
  • Healthy food and nutrition
  • Protection from infectious diseases
  • Health care
  • Choices in relation to family size and spacing.

Match these population-related human rights to different stages in the human life span.

The ‘new understanding’ on Population and Development recognises that women’s rights are paramount for achieving a sustainable future. At the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, and at the Cairo +5 Review Conference in 1999 in The Hague, all governments agreed to implement strategies that would give women these human rights.

The international community also rejected demographic targets or quotas and the use of coercion in the implementation of family planning policies. It was agreed that the issues of family size and spacing (that influence population growth rates) ought to be the result of personal choice in favour of smaller families. This means that government policies need to be directed at widening the individual’s scope for choice.

This ‘new understanding’ sees sexual and reproductive health as a human right, including access to information and services for family planning, safe motherhood, advice and treatment for infertility, and protection against and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive tract infections. The International Conference on Population and Development agreed on several specific goals, including making reproductive health services universally available as part of primary health services by 2015.

Countries that have adopted population policies, that include information programmes to make their populations aware of the benefits of family planning, and services to back them up, have registered significant reductions in fertility rates. However, family planning is not just a matter of providing contraceptive services. The ability to take advantage of family planning is part of an attitude to life and is fostered in an environment in which everyone has opportunities and choices, including access to family planning services.

The process of building these opportunities begins at birth. How parents greet the birth of a new child (e.g. whether a baby girl is as welcome as a boy), whether girls and boys are reared with equal chances of health and education, and whether parents choose to plan the birth of a subsequent child, affect the opportunities and aspirations of the whole family. These factors all have a bearing on how future generations perceive opportunities for choice in their own family life. And as children grow to adulthood, and parents become grandparents, a whole society’s values can change.

The two most important human rights in this regard are:

Source: Adapted from: Engelman, R. (1997) Why Population Matters, International edition, Population Action International, Washington DC., p. 52.

Read more about the international Face to Face campaign for universal access to reproductive health care, education and women’s empowerment.

Men, Population and Human Rights

Many population initiatives are beginning to focus on the role of men – preventing unwanted pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, promoting male responsibility for protecting their own and their partners’ sexual and reproductive health, sharing household and child-rearing responsibilities, and helping eliminate harmful practices, coercion and sexual violence.

The fact that we are only now emphasising this issue is proof of the denial-to-date of many women’s rights in the area of population planning.

It is now recognised that women cannot adequately protect their sexual and reproductive health in the context of power imbalances with their male partners. Male-female collaboration is essential to the development of more caring, responsible sexual relationships and to redress gender power imbalances.

However, many policies and programmes have tended not to support men’s roles as fathers within families. Yet, their commitment to their children is integral to the quality of family life, and to the prospects of the next generation.

Thus, it is being recognised that it is vital, for example, to provide boys with caring, informed, and responsible images of what it means to be ‘male’. This has given rise to a range of programmes to collect information on and support the preparation of boys for effective fatherhood, responsible masculinity, more equal participation in decision-making about contraception and fertility, and fuller participation in caring for children.

Some case studies of such programmes include:

The Father Project – Colombia

The Father Project teaches men that they are responsible, along with their partners, for their children’s development. The project utilises pamphlets about fathering and values, television spots about communication, and the distribution of children’s books about fathering in its efforts to promote male participation in pregnancy, childbirth, and the rearing of children, and to encourage them to become full partners in their families, as fathers, husbands and friends.

The HASIK Project – The Philippines

HASIK (Harnessing Self-reliant Initiatives and Knowledge, an NGO in the Philippines has collaborated with other NGOs to develop a model of gender sensitivity training for men in response to the need to work with both men and women in improving understanding of gender relations. Through workshops, HASIK deals with such manifestations of gender bias as marginalisation, subordination, gender stereotyping, double workloads, and violence against women. The group works with men to discuss the problems and their causes, and to develop plans of action to combat them.

Anti-violence projects – USA

In the United States, men’s groups are making an effort to change attitudes and behaviour related to male sexuality and gender roles. One of these groups, Men Acting for Change, which comprises students, faculty, and alumni, was formed by male students at Duke University in response to their concerns regarding violence against university women. The Oakland Men’s Project in California, a non-profit multiracial organisation of both men and women, aims to eradicate male violence, among other social problems. The group helps men examine popular definitions of masculinity, male socialisation, and how the male sex role often sets men up to be dominating, controlling, and abusive.

Male contraception projects – Zambia

Efforts to develop better contraceptives for men, to encourage their support for female methods, and to improve our understanding of masculinity, male sexuality, and male perspectives on gender and family roles, are key to empowering men in this arena, and to involve them more fully in empowering women. Researchers and activists who work with men report that male-only counselling groups on these topics are most effective, and that it is essential to have a facilitator who is able to encourage men to confront such issues as machismo, power, control and violence. It is also critical to note that very different approaches are needed to reach men of different ages.

Source: Adapted from The State of the World Population 1995, UNFPA, New York, pp. 23-24.

Read more about ways of enhancing men’s roles and responsibilities in family life.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q9: How important is population education to the curriculum in your school.

Q10: To what extent are lessons on population issues related to issues of living sustainable – such as human rights, gender and sustainability – at your school?

Q11: How and when will you use the interactive learning module on Population Growth Rates in your teaching?

Q12: How and when could you use data on the population and development in China and India, the world’s two most highly populated countries in your teaching?

Q13: How and when could you use data related to the population size of the world.

Q14: How and when could you use information and case studies from the women’s rights Face to Face campaign in your teaching?