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[LONDON] Least developed countries (LDCs) must improve women's access to education and family planning if they are to achieve sustainable development, according to recommendations in a Royal Society report, People and the Planet, launched this week (26 April).

Although global population growth is slowing, rates in LDCs — particularly Sub-Saharan Africa — are expected to remain high for the rest of the century, hampering efforts to reduce poverty, according to the report's authors, who include experts from Brazil, China and Ethiopia.

"Africa alone will actually contribute to more than 70 per cent of the increase in the global population [this century]," said Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu, executive director of the African Institute for Development Policy and president of the Union for African Population Studies, adding that there is a well-established link between low education levels and high birthrates.

Education delays the onset of childbirth, but also empowers women, "because once you're more educated, you can have more autonomy, more say in decision making processes in your marriage," Zulu said.

The report notes that educated women are also more likely to seek out healthcare for their children and get jobs, thereby contributing to their economies. Consequently, instead of waiting for development to slow population growth, Zulu said, countries should focus on reducing fertility rates to promote development.

"The evidence shows that the majority of women in Africa and the other [LDCs] actually want to have fewer children but they are not able to do that because they are not using family planning or they don't have access to it," he told SciDev.Net.

"We need to invest in family planning programmes to address the barriers that women are facing, that are preventing them from accessing and using family planning.

"Not only will that help reduce population growth … but it will also help enhance this goal of uplifting people out of poverty — because as we know, when we invest in family planning, when we slow down population growth, we empower women, we improve child and maternal health, we also provide a bit of opportunity for the poor countries to improve human capital, which they desperately need to move to middle income status."

Zulu said family planning use had soared in Bangladesh, Malawi and Rwanda, where it had been "de-medicalised" and taken to local communities, and efforts to engage men on the issue had also been made.

The report says providing family planning to everyone who wants and needs it would cost US$7 billion a year, while providing universal education up to the age of 16 would cost US$34–69 billion a year.

John Sulston, fellow of the Royal Society and the chair of the report's working group said it was crucial for population to be included on the agenda of the forthcoming Rio+20 Summit in June, noting that population growth, human consumption, and the environment were integrally linked issues.

The report's other recommendations include lifting 1.3 billion people out of absolute poverty, reducing material consumption levels in wealthy and emerging economies, accelerating the search for alternative measures of development beyond gross domestic product (GDP), and tackling the environmental impact of urbanisation.