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November 2002, Volume 9, Number 11

Trends: Population, Migration, Food

Population. During the 20th century, the world's population quadrupled, and the share in rural areas fell sharply, from 86 percent in 1900 to 53 percent in 2000. The UN projects that there will be two billion more people in 2030, and that the urban population, now 2.8 billion, will be 4.8 billion, 60 percent of the world's residents.

The world's population, 6.2 billion in 2002 , is growing at an annual rate slightly over 1.2 percent, producing some 77 million people a year- 97 percent in developing countries. Six countries account for most of this annual increase--India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The United States ranks seventh in population growth, with 80 percent due to immigrants and their children. The UN projects 9.1 to 9.3 billion people worldwide by 2050, up from the current 6.1 billion, and a peak 10 billion in 2100.

About 10 percent or 620 million of the world's residents are over 60; by 2050, 20 percent of the 10 billion residents are expected to be over 60, about two billion. Japan and Italy--now the two "oldest" countries, with a median age above 40 and climbing--nearly a quarter of the population is already over 60, and that will pass 40 percent by 2050. In the US, 16 percent of the population is over 60; 27 percent of residents are expected to be over 60 in 2050.

The rising number of older people, who often do not work, may produce economic strains as the elderly seek support either directly by families or indirectly through taxes. Worldwide, there are nine people of working age--defined by the U.N. as 15 through 65--for every older person. That ratio will shrink to 4 to 1 in 2050. In the industrial nations, the population support ratio is currently 5 to 1, and is projected to be 2-1 in 2050.

Migration. The "International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families" was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1990, and needs 20 ratifications to become international law. As of October 2002, 19 of the 190 UN members had ratified the 93-article convention.

The United Nations Population Division in July 2002 estimated there were 185 million people living for 12 months or more outside their country of birth or citizenship in 2000, up from 120 million in 1990. The previous estimate of 165 million was raised because of new data from Russia and the ex-USSR. Director Joseph Chamie said that it was hard to discuss migration rationally because of "a yawning lack of data, absence of theories to explain international migration, a weak understanding of the complex interrelationship between migration and development, and concerns about the social, economic and political consequences." The UN requests migration data from member countries, but only a third provide them.

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik argues that "even a marginal liberalization of international labor flows would create gains for the world economy" far larger than prospective gains from trade negotiations, on the order of $200 billion, with the benefits going into workers' pockets. A 2002 study by Werner International concluded that, in many developing countries, the wages of apparel workers did not rise in the 1990s, even though trade in textiles increased. In Pakistan, for example, the wages of textile workers remained steady at $0.24 an hour, which means apparel workers' wages declined in inflation-adjusted terms. Real wages also declined for apparel workers in Turkey, the Philippines and Egypt. In Mexico, which sent $9 billion worth of apparel to the US in 2001- the real wages of apparel workers fell in the 1990s.

Critics of the theory that freer trade will raise wages and living standards for most people in both developing and industrial countries say that economic theory omits one important variable: the huge oversupply of workers. The spread of the Washington consensus that competitive markets and free trade maximize economic growth ignores, they say, the increase in the number of workers made available to global business in China, Indonesia, and other countries joining the global economy. A worldwide labor glut puts downward pressure on wages, critics say, so that only by opening even more industrial country markets to the exports of developing nations- say for farm commodities- will developing countries be able to produce their way out of low-wage development.

Food. World food production has tripled since 1950, the price of food has dropped by nearly 50 percent, and the land used in agriculture has increased by nine percent. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization is the lead agency to achieve the UN goal of halving world hunger by 2015. The FAO estimates that, from 1998 to 2000, there were 840 million undernourished people -- roughly 15 percent of the world's people. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have both the greatest number of undernourished people and the largest increase in malnourishment.

The World Bank expects dwindling water supplies to become a major factor inhibiting economic growth. By 2015, 40 percent of the world's population, about three billion people, are expected to live in countries where it is difficult or impossible to get enough water to satisfy basic needs. Less than one percent of the world's water supply is fresh, and over the last 70 years, the world's population has tripled, while water demand has increased six-fold, so that today about half of the world's available fresh water is being used for agriculture, households, or industry. There is no generally accepted formula for sharing water from the world's 300 rivers that cross national borders, and there are growing disputes over water from the Euphrates (Turkey, Syria, Iraq) to the Colorado (US and Mexico).