Developing countries can fuel economic expansion and boost productivity by investing in family planning and reproductive health services, according to a major United Nations report.
The report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says lower fertility and slower population growth during the last three decades had contributed to faster economic progress in a number of developing countries.
The UNFPA report urges such countries to take advantage of a 'demographic window' opened by a decreasing number of younger children and older people in their populations.
A third of the annual economic growth of the east Asian 'tiger' economies was due to the advantages this window had presented. In Brazil, the effect of declining fertility has been equal to economic growth of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita each year, it says.
"Better health, including reproductive health, and education contribute to economic growth," the UNFPA says in the 2002 edition of its annual State of World Population report which was launched simultaneously in world capitals on Tuesday.
The 'demographic window' opened by falling fertility offered a once-only opportunity for economic growth, the report adds, explaining that the window opens as the number of younger children decreases, but closes again as the proportion of older people rises.
"Many countries are entering the transitional period," the report says.
Countries in South Asia will reach their peak ratio of workers to dependents between 2015 and 2025, while those in Latin America will do so between 2020 and 2030, it says.
In sub-Saharan Africa, fertility is so high that half the population is below the age of 17.6 years and the worker-dependents ratio is lower today than it was in 1950, the report says. Some countries in Africa had begun their demographic transition, but 'progress will depend on the availability of reproductive health services including family planning.'
Brazil's fertility rate is estimated at 2.15 children per woman, just above the replacement rate of 2.10 required to keep a population stable. The average rate for Latin America is 2.50.
While the average fertility rate for developing countries has dropped from six children per woman in 1960 to about 2.90, it remains at 5.20 in the least developed regions.
The report also examines the problems of the ageing poor in developing countries. On India the report says: "India's older population is expected to grow from 77 million in 2000 to about 141 million by 2020. More than half of all older persons are on the verge of poverty, with many in poor health and living in unhygienic conditions."
"Very few are covered by any kind of retirement scheme; the primary source of care and support is the family. However, economic development and widespread migration of young adults are disrupting traditional support for older people. Older women, especially those unmarried or widowed, are particularly disadvantaged," it says.
The report says better education "helps women to protect their own and their children's health and widens economic choices. Higher incomes improve living environments, reduce malnutrition and provide a buffer against the costs of poor health."
It urges wealthy countries to give more aid to poor nations for health, education and family planning and urged developing nations to better tailor their programmes to the poor, leaving them with more money to spend on other pressing needs.
UNFPA provides 6 billion a year to reproductive health programmes, which include care for pregnant women and newborn babies, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, as well as family planning.
The report argues that addressing population concerns was crucial to meeting the UN's Millennium Summit goals of halving global poverty and arresting the -- spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.
The report finds that half the world -- more than three billion people -- live on less than $2 a day. Projections by the UN Population Division show the world's population rising from just over 6 billion today to 9.3 billion by mid-century, almost entirely due to demographic growth in the poorest countries.