May 17, 2021

Experts in Population and Development Commission Discuss Ageing Global Populace, New Ways to Collect, Use Data on International Migration, Impact of COVID-19

Population experts from the United Nations and Governments around the globe explored populating ageing and other emerging demographic trends, and weighed innovative ways to collect and use data, as the Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Population and Development continued its annual session today.

The Commission kicked off the penultimate day of its fifty-fourth annual session with an expert panel on the United Nations programme of work in population, which was followed by interactive debate with the panellists.  Among other things, participants explored questions related to the collection of critical data on fertility, mortality and international migration.  Many speakers drew attention to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, urging the Population Division to support countries as they pivot to track its unprecedented impacts — such as the erosion of hard-won development gains — as well as the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

Moderator John Wilmoth, Director of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division, introduced a report of the Secretary-General on the work accomplished by the Division in 2020 (document E/CN/9/2021/5).  Among other highlights, it includes a first analysis of data on births among girls aged 10 to 14, to begin the monitoring of this age group as mandated by Member States under Sustainable Development Goal 3.  The report also has updated estimates of the international migrant population, which included an adjustment for the impact of COVID-19 on mobility, as well as information on the trend of population ageing.

Outlining a range of methodological upgrades — including those adopted in response to the pandemic — he said the report details the formation, alongside the World Health Organization (WHO), of a Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Mortality Assessment, aimed at informing estimates of the global death toll attributable to the virus.  Against that backdrop, he asked the panellists to consider current and emerging population issues that should be addressed in the Division’s work and how his office can best support them at the national and regional levels.

Géraldine Duthé, Head of Demography of Southern Populations of the National Institute for Demographic Studies of France, was asked how consumers use the Population’s Division’s global population estimates and projections — known as the World Population Prospects — and how that product can be improved.  She responded by praising the Division’s tremendous work and its solid estimates and projections of both national and global populations.  Welcoming in particular that they incorporate as much as possible all existing data, from all countries, she encouraged the Division to push forward with its dissemination strategy — namely, by organizing press conferences with partners at the regional level.  The development of online seminars now offers a new way to reach a very large audience, including national statistical offices, media, policymakers and analysts.

She went on to propose the development of a specific campaign to convince some major users of population data who do not yet use the Population Division’s products — for example the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — to do so.  Spotlighting the importance of highly influential scientific journals, including the very recent publication in the Lancet Global Health journal of adolescent mortality data produced by the United Nations inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, she outlined several key steps for the next release of the World Population Prospects.  Among those will be the development of a database known as Demodata and the production of annual estimates to meet the needs of decision-makers and members of the public at large, she said.

Reiko Hayashi, Deputy Director-General of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research of Japan, was asked to discuss challenges and opportunities related to population ageing — one of the planet’s main demographic mega-trends — as well as how the Division can better integrate it into its work.  Noting that the percentage of people over age 65 in Japan is the highest in the world, she also pointed out that life expectancies have increased and older people are healthier than ever before.  Japan provides high-quality health care and has enacted a national policy committing to support people up to the age of 100.  Welcoming a data shift towards a focus on time remaining in one’s life, instead of old age, she noted that some countries set their definition of old age as 60, instead of 65, which can impact the Division’s data.

Gabriela Rodríguez Ramírez, Secretary-General of the National Population Council of Mexico, responded to a similar question about recent changes in age structures — including a current swelling of the population pyramid in the working age range, which will ultimately lead to a swell in the older age categories.  Asked what Mexico considers to be the main opportunities and challenges related to those shifts, she drew attention to recent changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased social pressure on women.  Noting that women, especially during the pandemic, often shoulder more of a family’s care-giving burden — even as they live longer and spend more years working than men — she pointed out that Mexico already provides a pension to all persons over age 80 and to all indigenous persons over age 65.  “We have to get ahead of the ageing of the population,” she stressed.

Jacques van Zuydam, Director of the National Population Unit of South Africa, was asked to outline some major policy priorities concerning sexual and reproductive health in South Africa, and what the Population Division can do to strengthen its monitoring work in those areas.  Responding, he noted that the Government provides sexual and reproductive health services as a fully integrated component of its primary health‑care systems, which are administered by provincial governments which draw up their own budgets.  “Therefore, we simply don’t have the data to report,” he said.  South Africa enshrines sexual and reproductive health and rights in its Constitution, relevant legislation and service delivery priorities.  However, the Government has consistently found that indicators of adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health had not improved since the 1990s, despite the high political and resource commitments.

Recalling that the 2011 and 2012 themes of the Commission led to a greater focus on those challenges, he said the Secretary-General’s reports have yielded valuable information to point South Africa’s work in the right direction and to identify countries it can learn from.  From that foundation, the Government worked with civil society partners both nationally and across the globe to draft a National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Framework Strategy as the first holistic, integrated approach to address those challenges.

The panellists responded to additional questions related to the crucial collection of data on fertility, mortality and international migration; teenage pregnancy and family planning; and the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns.  They also considered how the Division can better elevate population discussions at United Nations high-level meetings, and weighed best practices being used by demographers as they pivot to study the unprecedented impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the floor was opened for comments and questions, the representative of Norway was among those speakers who welcomed the Population Division’s shift towards a more focused study of sexual and reproductive health and rights — especially among young women.  The Division should also ramp up efforts to encourage countries to invest more in youth, she said.

The representative of Germany underlined the need for countries to collect more subnational-level disaggregated data.  Emphasizing that the world is living with the direct and indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are reversing decades of hard-won development gains — and have had a particularly devastating impact on women and girls’ health and rights — he called for additional efforts to help countries track and respond to those changes.

A representative of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, while noting that the Population Division “already has a lot on its plate”, nevertheless urged it to expand its consideration of data from new and alternate sources and to build bridges to organization working in those arenas.

Also participating were the representative of the Philippines and the Russian Federation.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 24 April, to take action on draft proposals and conclude its work.

General Discussion

As the Commission continued its general discussion, the representatives of a range of non-governmental and civil society organizations outlined the most critical issues facing population groups around the globe.  Many focused on the health and rights of women and girls, as well as migrants and agricultural workers, all of whom have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Speakers also considered lessons learned during the crisis so far, as well as gaps that must be urgently addressed, from the perspectives of their members and constituent groups.

KIERAN GORMAN-BEST of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said an estimated 272 million people are international migrants, and millions more are impacted by the phenomenon through family ties, economic exchanges and cultural connections.  While migration positively contributes to sustainable development, migrants remain disproportionately affected by poverty, food insecurity and a lack of income-generating activities.  Noting that issues of agriculture, food security and urban migration are becoming increasingly interlinked, he made several recommendations, including urging countries and international organizations to take people on the move into consideration when developing agricultural, rural development and social policies related to food security and nutrition.  In addition, migrants’ roles should be better recognized as the world responds to the COVID-19 crisis, he said, pointing out that agriculture and food systems in many countries depend on migrant workers who are employed under casual arrangements and enjoy few rights.

PAULA LOPEZ of the FEMM Foundation said that, since women’s hormonal health is linked to their overall well-being, sexual and reproductive health is a crucial component of achieving the highest attainable standard of health care.  However, she warned the Commission that, when women seek medical care, health‑care providers and programmes struggle to diagnose them and often can only treat symptoms like depression, weight gain, irregular bleeding and acne.  Further complicating access to health services is the fact that many women are unaware of the connection between hormones and their health, and the important link that this entails for fertility and family planning.  To provide women with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their health, FEMM Foundation offers reproductive and hormonal education and helps women understand the way various family planning methods work, as well as their potential side effects.  She added that new technologies, such as the Foundation’s app, are helping to provide women with more comprehensive health care.

ESPERANZA DELGADO of the International Planned Parenthood Federation said nutrition and food security are essential parts of maternal and child health, as well as sexual and reproductive health services for women, girls and adolescents, especially those with HIV.  The pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls, she stressed, noting that it has hampered the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services and increased sexual and gender-based violence.  To meet the urgent needs of women and girls, she called for the development of comprehensive sex education programmes and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.  She further called on Member States to strengthen the integration of nutrition into sexual and reproductive health services and engage women, adolescents and girls in policy development, implementation and monitoring.

ODIGIE EMMANUEL of the Centre for Human Rights and Climate Change Research asserted:  “Addressing food and nutrition security requires a significant increase in responsible investment in agriculture which respects, protects and promotes human rights.”  Agriculture drives growth, raises incomes and reduces poverty, she said, calling for increased action to help the 800 million chronically hungry people across the world.  Pro-population growth policies are needed due to the pandemic; such policies are tools for achieving sustainable development.  To that end, she called for the better integration of a human rights perspective into pro‑population‑growth strategies.

MARIANNE HASLEGRAVE of Commonwealth Medical Trust said the number of undernourished people worldwide has increased by between 83 and 132 million people because of the pandemic.  While the health crisis has brought required attention to the nutritional needs of many vulnerable populations, including older persons, there remains a clear need to target nutrition information and education at women and girls.  “It is women who are the decision-makers as far as food in the home is concerned,” she said, noting that women bear and wean their children and make daily dietary choices for their families.  “Efforts in this regard should not be lost as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks and their impacts across sectors,” she stressed.

CHRISTOS PAPAIOANNOU of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations described COVID-19 as both a “wake-up call to the vulnerability of our food systems” and an “insight into the ongoing threat posed by the climate crisis” to the nutrition and health of future generations.  Emphasizing that the voices of those impacted most by the crisis continue to be underrepresented at all levels of decision-making, he said the 1.3 million medical students represented by his organization are playing their part in addressing the pandemic’s unprecedented impacts.  Their actions range from creating stories for children and their mothers in Venezuela, aimed at answering all their COVID-19-related questions, to addressing the limited provision of sexual and reproductive health information and services in Rwanda.

RITA LUTHRE of the Women’s Health and Education Center outlined several lessons learned throughout the COVID-19 crisis.  First, she stressed that science and technology are essential to humanity’s collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and crises like it.  Welcoming growing collaborations across science and technology communities, she said global solidarity is essential, and called on world leaders to offer an urgent and coordinated response to the pandemic.  Those responses must tackle the ongoing health emergency, focus on COVID-19’s social and economic impacts and prioritize the responsibility to “recover better”.  Wealthier States should assist low-income countries, she said, adding that the pandemic has reminded the world of the importance of multilateralism.

Future Role and Organization of Commission on Population and Development

YEMBAOGO ERIC TIARE (Burkina Faso), Chair of the Commission, introduced an informal conference room paper titled “Future role and organization of the Commission on Population and Development” (document E/CN.9/2021/CRP.1).  He said that the Bureau of the fifty-third session had initiated a process of reflection on the Commission’s future role and organization.  This effort seeks to assess the continued need for annual negotiated outcomes and to ensure that such outcomes are action-oriented and promote cooperation.  Further, he said this process will allow the Commission to identify opportunities for strengthening its work, making sure it is fit for purpose and to reflect on the challenges it has been facing in recent years in reaching consensus.

He highlighted the report’s conclusions that:  the Commission is able to introduce many innovations without changing its methods of work; the challenge of adopting resolutions in the Commission is unrelated to its methods of work; and at this moment, there is limited appetite for a comprehensive review of its working methods.  “I am pleased to report that the organization of the current session has already benefited much from this reflection, in particular where it concerns greater involvement of accredited non-governmental organizations, increased engagement of experts, broader United Nations family collaboration, and enhanced information‑sharing,” he concluded.

MARTIN HERMANN (Denmark), speaking on behalf of 81 countries that participated in the general discussion, said the Commission’s outcome documents continue to feature intense negotiations, highlighting the relevance Member States place on them.  To that end, he said it is key that the Commission be organized optimally to fulfil its mandate.  “We must aim for the adoption of evidence-based and action-oriented resolutions,” he said.

ALEKSANDRA SHMAT (Belarus) stressed that her Government values the Commission’s work, but remains concerned over the ongoing lack of consensus surrounding its outcome documents.  Recommendations of the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development must be considered within the context of national sovereignty and each nation’s religious and ethical values, she stressed, adding that including additional topics to the Commission’s programme will only serve to dilute its work.

IVAN KONSTANTINOPOLSKIY (Russian Federation) said his Government remains concerned by the inclusion of this agenda item in the Commission’s work, warning that the issue lacks clarity.  The preparation of the informal report was not sanctioned by the Commission, whose work is clearly laid out in relevant General Assembly and Economic and Social Council resolutions.  The Commission is already equipped to fully carry out its functions, he stated, stressing that existing modalities already allow non-governmental organizations to effectively engage with the Commission.

AHMED MAGDY MOHAMED RASHAD ABDELAAL (Egypt) said the Commission’s role is very clear:  implementing the Programme of Action.  The lack of consensus does not stem from the Commission’s procedures.  Rather, lack of consensus must be attributed to efforts to include controversial terms in outcome documents.  “We will support every endeavour to improve the Commission’s work in order to reach consensus,” he declared, concluding that Member States must show the political will to work together in order for the Commission to fulfil its mandate.

The representative of Mexico asserted that the Commission must ensure that the issues it takes up fall within the remit of the Economic and Social Council and that the Commission must provide a platform for regional viewpoints that can feed into the implementation of the Programme of Action and for civil society engagement.

Also participating in the Commission’s general discussion were the representatives of Franciscans International, Haiti Cholera Research Funding Foundation, Inc., International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region, Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, and Swasti.