Wednesday, June 26, 2013

They Thought No One Would Notice?

There is an enormous difference between the world population projections put out by the United Nations in 2010 and 2012.

The 2010 revision said that 18 per cent of the world population was in “high fertility” countries, the most populous of which were, in order, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.

The 2012 revision, issued earlier this month, says only 9 per cent of the world population is in “high fertility” countries. Pakistan and the Philippines have been moved to the “intermediate fertility” group, to join India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

This is not because Pakistan and the Philippines underwent a miraculously speedy demographic transition.

It’s because the UN Population Division changed the definition of “high fertility.”

The 2010 paper said that the difference between the three levels High, Medium and Low was small: half a child per woman. If an average woman in a country had a single daughter to replace her, the country was considered “low fertility.” If the average was 1.5 girls per woman, the country fell into the “intermediate” grouping; anything more than that pushed it into the “high” fertility category.

In the 2012 paper, that rule seems to have been abandoned; the new enlarged “intermediate” fertility group consists of countries “where women have on average between 2.1 and 5 children.”

Such a dramatic change usually points to behind-the-scenes factors, and sure enough, I found them.

The 7-year incumbent of the post of Director of the Population Division, a Mexican woman, retired early in 2012 and was not replaced until January 2013. Meanwhile, the Chinese Under-Secretary-General in charge of the gargantuan Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) also changed.

I imagine the Pakistani delegation had always chafed at heading up the list of “high fertility” countries and took the opportunity of a leaderless Population Division to work its will through an “all weather friend” unfamiliar with the ropes at DESA.

Considering the attitude to statistics in Beijing, the Chinese USG probably saw no harm in changing a small demographic projection.

And the freshly arrived American Director? An academic from Berkeley who had spent two years at the UN but was by no means an insider. he probably never knew what hit him.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Remembering Mandela

Nelson Mandela in the basement studio of UN Television where I (grinning guy on the right) had just finished interviewing him. It was 22 June 1990 and he had come to the UN fresh out of prison in South Africa to speak to the UN General Assembly's Special Committee Against Apartheid. The photograph shows Kamil Taha, the Producer of the show (on the left of the table), giving his pen to Mandela so he could autograph my copy of the speech. Before signing, Mandela jokingly asked me if he should, like Mahatma Gandhi, charge for the signature. (Gandhi used to charge one rupee per autograph to raise money for the Harijan Fund.) I reached for my wallet but he waved it aside. "I'm not as great as Gandhi" he said. The other people in the picture are members of the African National Congress.