A New Look at the Asian Fertility Transition (Distinguishedl Lecture)

Publication Year : 1996

The significance of the Asian fertility transition can hardly be overestimated. The relatively sanguine view of population growth expressed at the 1994 International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo was possible only because of the demographic events in Asia over the last 30 years. In 1965 Asian women were still bearing about six children. Even at current rates, today’s young women will give birth to half as many. This measure, namely the average number of live births over a reproductive lifetime, is called the total fertility rate. It has to be above 2— considerably above if mortality is still high—to achieve long-term population replacement. By 1995 East Asia, taken as a whole, exhibited a total fertility rate of 1.9. Elsewhere, Singapore was below long-term replacement, Thailand had just achieved it, and Sri Lanka was only a little above. The role of Asia in the global fertility transition is shown by estimates I made a few years ago for a World Bank Planning Meeting covering the first quarter of a century of the Asian transition [Caldwell (1993), p. 300]. Between 1965 and 1988 the world’s annual birth rate fell by 22 percent. In 1988 there would have been 40 million more births if there had been no decline from 1965 fertility levels. Of that total decline in the world’s births, almost 80 percent had been contributed by Asia, compared with only 10 percent by Latin America, nothing by Africa, and, unexpectedly, 10 percent by the high-income countries of the West. Indeed, 60 percent of the decline was produced by two countries, China and India, even though they constitute only 38 percent of the world’s population. They accounted, between them, for over threequarters of Asia’s fall in births.