HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (February 19, 2002 – East-West Wire)---Asian countries that have lowered their fertility rates will still see a "youth bulge" that will mean more young people, especially in cities, and possibly more political instability. They will also see their populations age before they prosper, East-West Center specialists say.

But lower fertility has also meant successful economic development in those countries that planned well, offering lessons for other developing nations.

With well over half of the world's population living in Asia, and with the region's population predicted to grow by another 44 percent over the next five decades, policy decisions concerning population remain immensely important in countries that have lowered their fertility as well as those that haven't. Health and disease prevention programs remain just as important as increasing HIV epidemics in the region could see Asia dominate the global epidemic.

These topics will be discussed at two forums in the next week -- Feb. 21 in New York and Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C. -- by East-West Center's Robert Retherford, an expert on fertility and family planning and patterns; Andrew Mason, who specializes in economic development and population change; and Tim Brown, a researcher on HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific. Researchers have just completed a report on population trends in Asia, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for use by policymakers, NGOs, business leaders and others in the United States and Asia. Additional topics include risk-taking behavior among Asia's youth, changing marriage and family patterns, changing women's roles, and the explosive growth of Asia's megacities.

Retherford said most Asian countries have seen their fertility rates drop to moderate or low levels, with Afghanistan and Pakistan notable exceptions. But even countries with low fertility will see temporary population bulges of single youth ages 15-24 due to previously high fertility and rising ages of marriage. With increased concentrations of young adults in the cities, "this may lead to added political volatility in some countries," Retherford said.

Additionally, in East Asia, particularly Japan, where fertility is already low, aging populations will present serious economic and social problems. Similar problems in South Korea, Taiwan, China and Thailand will follow in 20-30 years. "Many Asian countries will get old before they get rich, creating major problems in taking care of the elderly," Retherford said. He suggested that wealthy countries may need to help poorer nations combat these problems.

On economic issues, Mason said studies of East Asia and other parts of the developing world are leading to a new consensus about the importance of rapidly changing demographics to economic development. Lower fertility rates lead to a period of larger growth in a country's labor force than in children and the elderly. "The demographic bonus can lead to a boost in productivity," Mason said. "However, these gains are not automatic. The countries that succeeded have adapted complementary economic and social policies" such as promoting liberal trade policies and creating jobs, including opportunities for women.

Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have succeeded but the former Soviet Union did not. "There must be productive investment," Mason said.

Regarding health problems, Brown said new HIV epidemics are still emerging in Vietnam, Indonesia and China but prevention efforts remain limited in most of Asia. Barriers to effective programs include "unwillingness to address sex and drugs, stigma and discrimination, lack of political will, and the tendency to use easy and inoffensive but ineffective solutions," Brown said.

Brown said some Asian countries, notably Thailand and Cambodia, have run effective campaigns against the spread of HIV epidemics with "focused" and pragmatic responses. These campaigns target sex workers and their clients, working closely with sex establishment owners and sex workers and also with public authorities to actively promote condom use and improve care for sexually transmitted diseases -- despite the illegality of sex work. Most women in Asia are infected by husbands or boyfriends.

Tim Brown can be reached at 808-944-7476 or 

Andrew Mason can be reached at 808-944-7455 or 

Robert Retherford can be reached at 808-944-7403 or 


East-Coast luncheon briefings by East-West Center specialists on population and health issues:

1. New York City: Thursday, Feb. 21, 1-3 p.m., UNA-USA, Arthur Ross Conference Center, 801 Second Ave., 2nd Floor. For more information, call UNA-USA at (212) 907-1300.

2. Washington, D.C.: Monday, Feb. 25, noon-1:30 p.m., 2168 Rayburn House Office Building. For more information, call the Population Resource Center at (202) 467-5030.

Related Publications:

1. "Population Change and Economic Development in East Asia: Challenges Met, Opportunities Seized," edited by Andrew Mason. Stanford University Press, 503 pages. Paperback $29.95. See  or call 1-800-872-7423.

2. "As Asia's Population Ages, Worries Grow about the Future," by Andrew Mason, Sang-Hyop Lee, and Gerard Russo, 8 pages. See 

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