How Fertility Trends Reflect Global as Well as Local Influences

18 Mar 2021

While transitions in fertility patterns – and their contributing factors and consequences - vary over time and region, there are factors that breach borders.  Princeton economist Alícia Adserà lays out a few such pathways for STI in this summary of her recent article, "International Political Economy and Future Fertility Trends".

STI Experts

Overall, policy efforts to raise fertility in low-fertility regions both in Western countries and East Asia have had limited success. When looking at the current levels across the world, the largest and most immediate potential margins of change in world’s fertility levels are in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an average total fertility rate of close to five (Table 1). Researchers note that fertility transition in African countries happened later (around the mid-1990s) and at lower levels of development than it did elsewhere, and it progressed at a very slow pace.

Among the multiple coexisting factors that account for these patterns, this research note describes three main pathways on how the international political economy may affect global fertility (and African fertility in particular), both currently and in the near future.

Table 1. Total fertility rate by Sustainable Development Goal regions

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) regions 2015-2020
Sub-Saharan Africa 4.72
Northern Africa and Western Asia 2.93
Central and Southern Asia 2.41
Eastern and South Eastern Asia 1.83
Latin America and the Caribbean 2.04
Australia/New Zealand 1.84
Europe and North America 1.66

Note: World Population Prospects 2019, U.N. Population Division.

First, the region’s political institutions, and weak governance slow down the pace of African fertility transition. Traditional pronatalist social, economic, and cultural practices partly explain the relatively low rates of contraception use (despite evidence of unmet need) and the larger desired family size in Sub-Saharan Africa than in similarly developed countries. Regional case studies highlight how the lack of political will among leaders and top policy-makers hampers the success of efforts to reduce fertility. Further, the ongoing political instability, wars, and associated population displacement in some parts of the region boost earlier marriages (with the hope of protecting young girls) and limit the territorial access of both public and private organizations seeking to provide services and educational infrastructure.  This weak governance hinders investments in education and health that are associated with lower morbidity and mortality, less risky behavior, and higher women’s agency and that would likely speed up a fall of fertility rates. 

Second, migration offers an opportunity to rejuvenate the population in most advanced nations and to reverse rising dependency ratios. Demographic and economic pressures in Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, generate a large pool of potential migrants. The socio-economic integration of migrants is contingent on immigration policies, economic opportunities and the generosity of the welfare state in major destinations, as well as on natives’ attitudes. Protectionism and populism may lead to a race-to-the-bottom dynamic that threatens existing welfare policies such as those that ease work-family trade-offs both for natives and migrants. In general, however, migration alone is unlikely to boost fertility rates in low-fertility countries in a sustained manner, as migrant fertility adapts to local levels within one generation or less, albeit with some heterogeneity across origins (as shown in some of my work).

Third, both remittances sent home and ideas brought back by return migrants (whether permanent or temporary) may influence fertility norms and levels in the origin countries. Financial remittances may lessen the need for child labor and boost educational investments. Social remittances in the form of transfers of information, skills, and social capital from receiving communities speed up women’s empowerment in the form of higher female labor market participation and educational levels.  Having first-hand information from peers and relatives thanks to cheap communication technologies and social media alleviates fears of experiencing social disapproval and side effects when using contraception, and eases within-couple negotiations. Stronger democratic values may also improve human capital formation.

Overall, the current trends in the international political economy seem to offer more opportunities than threats for the progress of women. Provided there is a reduction in the level of violence and improvements in governance that boost human capital investment in high-fertility countries, as well as a gradual convergence in gender norms across the globe, we should observe an increase in the pace of fertility decline in high-fertility regions among the more educated younger cohorts – and, as a result, a decrease in average fertility worldwide.