Although the world’s population is still growing, it is doing so at a slower rate than demographers had projected only a few years ago. Recent major gains in average life expectancy, reduced rates of child and infant mortality, and the increasing proportion of children now attending school all provide grounds for optimism about human well-being. Many of these gains have been made possible by unprecedented rates of economic growth in many countries. Some 3 billion to 4 billion people are expected to experience substantial improvements in their standard of living by the end of the 20th Century. Yet these global successes mask urgent, sometimes worsening problems at the local or regional level, especially among developing countries. More than one quarter of the world’s population has not shared in the economic and social progress experienced by the majority and still lives in poverty. Hunger, disease, illiteracy, and restricted freedom of choice or action are persistent problems in many of the least developed countries of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, as well as in parts of central Asia and South America. The pressure of population growth can contribute to human deprivation, especially in poor rural areas where competition for land and water can strain the capacity of local environments. Rapid population growth is also fueling problems in many cities, where it can overwhelm the capacity of municipal authorities to provide even elementary services.
Yet the interaction between population growth and human well-being is complex and not a matter of numbers alone. The capacity of countries to support growing populations is enhanced when those countries achieve a sufficient, equitable distribution of wealth, technological development, effective government, strong institutions, and social stability. This section explores some recent trends in population growth and demographic change, as well as in key indicators of human prosperity and social development.