(Photo credit: Population Institute)

In today’s world the most pressing global issues that we see day-in and day-out are the ongoing conflict in Syria and the greater Middle East, the sudden economic uncertainty in China, the rise of Russian power, and the persistent threat of North Korea and its growing nuclear capabilities. In addition to these critical global issues, Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute, suggests that the world direct its attention to one of equal concern, what he calls “the demographic challenge.”

DSC06654(1)As part of the International Speaker Series, presented by the Office of International Programs along with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, Walker spoke to an audience of students and faculty concerning the pressing issue of population growth. As President of the Population Institute – a non-profit that seeks to promote universal access to family planning information, education, and further services – Walker directs the organization’s advocacy and public education activities, assisting policy makers and foreign countries in bringing global population growth into balance.

The world’s population is projected to increase from 7.3 billion today to 9.6 billion or more by 2050. “A majority of this population growth,” Walker explained, “will be in the developing world.” These countries will potentially face threats of water scarcity, deforestation, and conflict or political instability. Coupled with population growth these issues are potentially intensified. Walker emphasized that, “Correlation is not causation,” but, “in this particular instance there is a high correlation between rapid population growth and a number of the world’s problems.”

The five major global issues, Walker explained, that possess correlations with population growth are: global hunger, poverty, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and conflict and political instability. According to the Population Institute’s Demographic Vulnerability Rankings – a list comprised of countries where population growth poses the greatest challenges – the top twenty countries on this list will have at least a high vulnerability to both poverty and hunger. These countries are primarily located in the African Sahel, part of the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and the Caribbean, and have population sizes that are projected to double by the year 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Walker emphasized that to address the rapid population growth in these areas, their needs to be a strategy concentrated on curtailing fertility rates by focusing on reducing gender inequality. “It’s about gender,” Walker passionately explained, “it’s about eliminating child marriage, educating girls, and addressing gender norms.” The high fertility rates in countries with rapid population growth were not necessarily due to lack of access to medications, though access is vitally important. Instead, Walker explained, the reasons for women not getting contraception was more likely due to male opposition, religion and societal norms, something that is often overlooked. “We’re not taking fully into account the reasons why women aren’t getting contraception who want it in countries where there is access,” said Walker.

One could easily grow pessimistic towards the challenges explained by Mr. Walker but the Population Institute along with the Population Media Center, based in Vermont, has found an unlikely yet far-reaching solution that has gained traction throughout the world. The two organizations, in a joint effort with in-country personnel, have created a series of serial dramas that have addressed topics relating to sex, abortion, and family planning. Called the Sabido Method after Miguel Sabido, the Mexican television executive who spearheaded the strategy in the 1980’s, has made huge strides in promoting behavioral change in countries where serial dramas are aired. The first drama series, which was aired on Telenuvelo in Mexico and addressed adult literacy issues, sparked a registration in government classes of 1 million people within the first week. The program has sense then been taken to other countries throughout the world including India and Ethiopia. The underlying theory of the program is based off of psychologist Albert Bandura’s “social learning theory, ” which explains that people learn certain behavior from personal observation more so than teaching.

Walker closed his talk reiterating the importance of addressing gender inequality, empowerment of women, and access to contraception. He said, “If we address all the other problems…try to create jobs, try to improve food security, try to improve water scarcity and we do nothing about the other three (gender inequality, women empowerment, access to contraception), there is no way that we are settling those problems.” In the face of such challenges there is great opportunity and the room to “make remarkable progress, ” said Walker.

DSC06682The world has its crises that are constantly covered by news sources and it is our duty as global citizens to address these crises. Rapid population growth might not get the attention Walker says it deserves, but as we are pressed to find sustainable solutions to the issues that occupy our television screens and fill the front pages of our newspapers, we are also equally as pressed to address the “demographic challenge” in a world with finite resources and limited space.

Written by Jonas Heidenreich, recent graduate of Political Science with a concentration in International and Comparative Politics from Appalachian State (Dec. 2015)