9 May 2023

Australia’s Role in Global Population


On 15th November 2022, the world’s human population totalled 8 billion people.

While acknowledging it is projected to surpass 9 billion around 2037 and 10 billion around 2058, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has all but welcomed this milestone with his statement ‘8 billion people means 8 billion opportunities to live dignified and fulfilled lives’. Which only goes to show this international body has its head in the sand, ignoring the contribution of population growth to extreme poverty and environmental deterioration.

Sadly it is part of a continuing pattern. The UN has been consistently underestimating global population growth in the past decade, so future growth is more likely to be greater than they predict, rather than less, unless the world community provides more support for family planning programs in high fertility countries. As spelled out in SPA’s briefing note on the 8 billion milestone , continuing population growth will have negative impacts on food security, poverty, unemployment, land and resource scarcity, and forced displacement of people (e.g. refugees).

Surrounded now by 8 billion people, what role should Australia play in dealing with the problems associated with this still-growing number? In concert with such growth, also growing are the millions of refugees and displaced people in the world.  As at May 2022, the UNHCR has put the number at 100 million. With the best of moral intentions, it is clear Australia cannot take responsibility for them by bringing them all here. Our fragile continent has environmental limits – our declining biodiversity as revealed in successive ‘State of the Environment’ reports is proof. So what should Australia do?

In 2020-21, despite an allocation of 13,750 places in the budget papers, the Australian Government issued only 5,947 visas. SPA’s view is we can easily increase our humanitarian intake to 20,000 while appropriately reducing our skilled migrant intake. In 2021 we called for Australia to take in 10,000 Afghan refugees.

Australia’s greatest effectiveness could be through the nation’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget, i.e., the economic aid we give to developing nations. Every new person arriving in Australia requires a wide range of infrastructure and related supports: houses and roads, schools and teachers, hospitals and nurses, courts and police, water and sewerage systems, electricity and gas, these being some of the big budget items. In 2019 Infrastructure Australia estimated governments would have to find $40 billion a year to cope with the infrastructure demands of a population forecast of more than 30 million people by 2034.

Imagine the difference which could be made if instead this money for extra people in Australia was redirected to people in developing nations. It would make a dent in the poverty and therefore the political unrest which besets these nations – the cause of so many displaced people. Of course, we would not be arguing for such huge amounts to be allocated to our ODA budget. But what this demonstrates is how we can get the ‘biggest bang for our buck’.

It’s a rational choice, and one that can bring the greatest assistance to the greatest number of people. In particular, SPA advocates for a much higher percentage of ODA funding to be spent on family planning and contraception, for good reason.

With the exception of middle-east oil states, the developing countries which have made the most progress in the past 50 years had successful birth control programs. These programs were overwhelmingly voluntary, focused on delivering high-quality and culturally sensitive reproductive health services, and also advertised the benefits to families of having fewer children

It is true there were some regrettable instances where governments seeking to reduce population growth did abuse human rights, resorting to forced sterilisations and abortions, or various penalties for childbearing. China’s one-child policy is the most notorious, but instances occurred in India, Peru and elsewhere. Coercive measures were always unnecessary and probably always counterproductive. It is a mistake to think that such measures were ever condoned, let alone intended, by the international family planning movement, which always saw addressing women’s reproductive health and rights as essential and synergistic with slowing population growth to reduce poverty and food insecurity.

Where voluntary programs were implemented, for instance in South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran and Mauritius, lower birth rates were achieved despite the population being poor, mostly rural and largely illiterate. Then, wealth and education rapidly improved after fertility fell, but were not themselves the major or initial drivers of the fall in birth rates. In contrast, high-fertility countries have failed to reduce poverty due to the burdens of population growth and are increasingly facing instability as resource constraints tighten. In high fertility countries, investments in family planning are more likely to improve wealth and education more than spending the same amount on development and education.

However, during the more than nine years of Liberal-National Party Government (2013 – 2022), Australia’s ODA budget went backwards. At the end of the LNP incumbency, Australia’s ODA budget was 0.21% of GNI (gross national income, previously known as gross national product) when the average across the 30 countries which belong to the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee was 0.32%. In that group we were the ninth largest economy, but ranked 18th on ODA per capita (compared to 10th in 2012) and 21st on ODA as a percentage of GNI (13th in 2012).

The Labor government elected in May 2022 has promised to increase the ODA budget to 0.5%. Their October 2022 budget delivered the first step in attaining that goal with a $1.4 billion dollar increase over four years.

Sustainable Population Australia welcomes this increase and the longer term commitment to 0.5% of GNI. However, the budget’s ultimate effectiveness will depend on how much of this increase will be allocated to family planning and contraception. Under the previous government, of Australia’s $4 billion aid budget, only $78 million was directed to the sexual and reproductive health program, and within that, only $32.5 million went to family planning itself. Almost none of it went to Africa where there is a critical need.


Read more on SPA’s position on global population here.
Read more on family planning and women’s empowerment here.


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