by Jay Gribble, vice president, International Programs
Although many countries have had long-standing population policies, one of the challenges facing their implementation is that they can be very comprehensive, addressing a wide range of population-related issues. In commenting on the first day of the PopPov annual research meeting, Dr. Frederick Mugisha talked about the fact that the population policy issue receiving the most attention these days is family planning—ensuring that women and couples have a choice in contraceptive methods so they can time and space their births as they want. It strikes me that even though family planning programs are still insufficient to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of women and couples, this aspect of population policies receive a lot of attention, at least in comparison to other parts of the policies. The reason may be that family planning provides a near-term solution to a large, complex issue. Helping women and couples achieve their desired family size through access to effective family planning can be looked at from the perspectives of health, human rights, and development.
At the same time, many population policies expand on other issues, especially those related to the young age structure of many countries. Investments in human capital—education and health—are also central to development. Yet the investments needed to make progress on these fronts are much greater and achieving these policy goals is often limited by gender biases. While education is critical to development, the benefits of investments in education take longer to achieve. Countries have been challenged by the Millennium Development Goals to make universal primary education a priority, and many countries are on track to achieving the goal. However, the story behind this success is that the quality of education is often insufficient. While some education is certainly better than no education, putting 100 or more children in a cramped classroom, or in an open air classroom, hardly gives children the education they need. And increasingly, research indicates that secondary education is where young people gain the skills they need both individually and in the aggregate to be competitive in the labor force and the global economy. Implementing population policies requires a balanced approach—a focus on both short-term and long-term investments needed to achieve the goals established by the policies.
As a policy adviser, Dr. Mugisha noted that it is very difficult to practice public finance without taking into account population dynamics. How can one decide on the number and placement of schools to be built, roads to be constructed, and other investments in infrastructure without considering how the population is growing in terms of numbers and geographic distribution? While many policymakers do not consider the role of population in identifying priorities and allocating limited resources, to ignore population trends is to exclude key information from the decisionmaking process.
As the field of economic development moves forward, it is critical that we also think about how research can inform governments and public finance. Getting excited about significant research finding is important, and translating that excitement into useful information for the public sector is fundamental to developing policies that improve human capital and foster economic growth. The first day of the conference gave participants a lot to think about, including Dr. Mugisha’s challenge to making research findings relevant to policy development.