United Nations Holds a Population Conference Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the United Nations convened a second international governmental conference to examine world population issues, delegates from 147 countries participated in proposing population policies and programs for the next decade.

Summary of Event

The United Nations held its International Conference on Population in Mexico City in August, 1984, during which representatives of participating nations reviewed the developments and achievements of the preceding decade concerning population issues and endorsed further ideas for implementing the World Population Plan of Action. World Population Plan of Action The 147 government delegations were in remarkable agreement about the importance of taking action on population issues and of trying to understand their relationship to quality of life and world stability. International Conference on Population (1984) United Nations;population issues Population;U.N. conferences [kw]United Nations Holds a Population Conference (Aug. 6-14, 1984) [kw]Population Conference, United Nations Holds a (Aug. 6-14, 1984) [kw]Conference, United Nations Holds a Population (Aug. 6-14, 1984) International Conference on Population (1984) United Nations;population issues Population;U.N. conferences [g]North America;Aug. 6-14, 1984: United Nations Holds a Population Conference[05490] [g]Mexico;Aug. 6-14, 1984: United Nations Holds a Population Conference[05490] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 6-14, 1984: United Nations Holds a Population Conference[05490] [c]United Nations;Aug. 6-14, 1984: United Nations Holds a Population Conference[05490] [c]Environmental issues;Aug. 6-14, 1984: United Nations Holds a Population Conference[05490] Rockefeller, John D., III Sadik, Nafis Sai, Frederick T. Salas, Rafael M. Thant, U

Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger Sanger, Margaret helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. The League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was unofficially represented at that conference. The United Nations was established in 1945, and by 1946 the U.N. Population Commission United Nations Population Commission was created in order to advise the Economic and Social Council United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations regarding demographic issues. The Population Commission also continued the earlier efforts of the League of Nations by working with local governments to collect demographic information.

In 1948, Julian Huxley, Huxley, Julian director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), expressed concern about overpopulation and malnutrition and their effects on economic growth. Huxley proposed that the United Nations hold a conference on the topic, and the World Population Conference World Population Conferences was eventually held in Rome in 1954. The participants highlighted current and future research areas. By the 1950’s, Japan, Pakistan, and India were endorsing or considering measures to limit family size, and the mounting interest led to a second World Population Conference in 1965 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now in Serbia), that focused largely on the technical aspects of tailoring population programs to local needs.

In 1966, twenty-five countries, including the United States, sponsored a U.N. resolution supporting further population research, and in the following year the U.S. Congress passed a bill appropriating money to voluntary family-planning programs in friendly foreign nations. These two actions convinced Secretary-General U Thant of the United Nations to create a trust fund for population issues. By 1968, the money in the U.N. Fund for Population Activities United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) exceeded $1 million, and U Thant extended the fund’s activities. The administrator of the UNFPA, Rafael M. Salas, was appointed as the fund’s executive director.

Late in 1970, the U.N. General Assembly designated 1974 as the World Population Year World Population Year (1974) after ECOSOC approved a proposal for another World Population Conference, which was held August 19-30, 1974, in Bucharest, Romania, under the auspices of the United Nations. This was the first international conference at which official government representatives considered the effects of demographic factors on nations’ economic and social development. Participants discussed policies that could be put in place and actions that could be taken to improve the quality of life for people around the world.

The U.N. Population Division had organized and summarized four preliminary symposia on population relative to future trends, economic and social development, resources and environment, and the family; the division had also drafted a World Population Plan of Action with the advice of experts. These documents focused discussions and laid the basis for consensus. All nations recognized that world population was increasing, but there was a range of opinion on whether the increase was a problem. Eastern Europeans argued that population growth was a nonissue, Brazilian and Chinese delegates suggested that growth was needed to fill empty lands, and representatives from Western Europe, the United States, Japan, and some Latin American countries asserted that rapid population growth was an impediment to socioeconomic development.

Agreement was eventually achieved in spite of profound differences of opinion, and the World Population Plan of Action was approved with revisions. Central to the plan was a call for a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. Wealthier nations were urged to conserve and share. Nations that were concerned about their birthrates were encouraged to set goals. Women’s rights were championed, and family planning was downplayed in favor of discussion about educating people on responsible parenthood. Finally, the UNFPA was asked to create a plan for the provision of international assistance in achieving those goals.

By 1981, the United Nations was reviewing its progress since implementing the World Population Plan. World population size had increased by 20 percent, and 90 percent of that increase had occurred in the developing areas of the world. Many more countries were concerned about their rates of growth and had taken action. China had adopted the world’s most ambitious program to stabilize population growth and had instituted the one-child policy in 1979. Most experts recognized that population is linked to socioeconomic development, and thus, another population conference was convened in 1984 in Mexico City, Mexico, with Rafael Salas as conference secretary-general, in recognition of the central role the UNFPA now played in population affairs at the United Nations.

Again, preliminary symposia were held in advance of the conference, although the primary objectives were to support and find further ways to implement the goals of the World Population Plan. Areas of agreement were emphasized by the diplomatic skills of Salas and Frederick T. Sai, the chairman of the Main Committee at Mexico City. The participants eventually supported eighty-eight recommendations, several of which addressed the importance of the link between population and development planning. Emphasis was placed on the importance of women’s roles and status in relation to development and population change. Although the recommendations strongly supported family planning, the right of families to determine the number and spacing of children was reaffirmed. Many specific measures designed to lower mortality and improve children’s health were advocated. A large number of recommendations concerned population distribution and movements, and most condemned the establishment of settlements in areas unlawfully occupied. Overall, the conference achieved a remarkable degree of consensus.


The United States has long been a key player in calling attention to demographic problems, particularly rapid population growth. John D. Rockefeller III helped direct attention to and financial support for population issues and founded the Population Council in 1952. Until the mid-1960’s, most support for fertility control came from the Ford Foundation Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, channeled through the Population Council, which emphasized research rather than action. The Ford Foundation also assisted developing countries in establishing demographic research centers, first in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1956; in Santiago, Chile, in 1957; in Cairo, Egypt, in 1973; and later in sub-Saharan Africa.

From 1962 to 1972, the governing bodies of the United Nation passed a series of resolutions concerning population issues, which were usually proposed and backed by Western and Asian countries, particularly India, Sweden, and the United States. Representatives of these countries believed that rapid population growth slowed or prevented economic development. The United States provided much of the support for family planning through its Agency for International Development, and very little of the money was put into research or institutional support. The leadership of Catholic, socialist, and African countries opposed the emphasis on fertility control. They supported financial assistance to governments but believed that decision making about how to deal with demographic problems should be left to local officials. There was no consensus at the international level on what specific policies to pursue.

The gap between rich and poor nations increased during the 1960’s, and the developing nations realized that unity was prerequisite to forcing concessions from the wealthier nations. A series of conferences eventually resulted in the formation of the Group of 77, Group of 77[Group of Seventy Seven] a bloc of U.N.-member countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America whose goal was to restructure economic exchange, such as reduction in trade barriers and better prices for commodities, at the international level. Another success was the control of oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). An influential OPEC member, Algeria, soon called for support for economic changes through the United Nations.

Many of the developing countries viewed population problems as the result of underdevelopment or capitalism and believed that the solution to population problems would be a new international economic order. Most U.S. population experts had emphasized family planning over development, a position that leaders in developing nations tended to regard with suspicion. There was much conflict at the Bucharest population conference over the relative importance of population versus development planning, but eventually the preliminary World Population Plan was rewritten to incorporate the developing nations’ economic concerns and to de-emphasize population issues.

The conference that took place in Mexico City was very different from the Bucharest conference. Economic difficulties in the industrialized nations coupled with conservative leadership prevented developing nations from pursuing their planned economic changes. OPEC was no longer influential. The most successful of the developing nations in East Asia and Latin America were pursuing market-oriented investment strategies, and many of the developing nations were heavily indebted to the West. Most developing countries now recognized that rapid population growth and its associated ills should be addressed whether or not there were changes in the global economy.

The shift to conservative leadership in the United States resulted in a reversal of its position on population issues. The United States had been the most significant contributor to international population programs; however, the U.S. delegation to Mexico City was headed by James L. Buckley, Buckley, James L. a former U.S. senator and president of Radio Free Europe, who stated that population was a neutral issue. The U.S. delegation also proposed that all funds should be withheld from organizations that provided any type of support for abortions and, later, the United States ceased funding UNFPA and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The Mexico City conference, however, was still considered a success. Population issues received increased attention, governments and international organizations renewed ties, and a consensus was achieved upholding and expanding the 1974 World Population Plan of Action.

By 1990, most developing nations had policies designed to reduce population growth, and most of those countries had instituted family-planning programs. The average number of children born per woman declined from 6.1 in the mid-1960’s to 3.8 in 1990, and 50 percent of couples used contraception, although these averages hide interregional and intraregional variation. For example, sub-Saharan African reproductive behavior changed little in the 1980’s, although in the subsequent decade, even in Africa population growth rates generally declined. These reductions in population growth in Africa were consistent with decreases found in population growth throughout the world during the 1990’s and early twenty-first century. International Conference on Population (1984) United Nations;population issues Population;U.N. conferences

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birdsall, Nancy, Allen C. Kelley, and Steven W. Sinding, eds. Population Matters: Demographic Change, Economic Growth, and Poverty in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Collection of essays focuses on the relationship between population change and economic performance in developing nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bongaarts, John. “Population Policy Options in the Developing World.” Science 263 (February, 1994): 771-776. Presents an excellent brief overview of population policies and their effects in developing countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, George F. “Conference Report: United Nations International Conference on Population, Mexico City, 6-13 August 1984.” Studies in Family Planning 15 (November/December, 1984): 296-302. Good summary of the conference in an accessible publication of the Population Council. Focuses largely on family planning in developing countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finkle, Jason L., and Barbara B. Crane. “Ideology and Politics at Mexico City: The United States at the 1984 International Conference on Population.” Population and Development Review 11 (March, 1985): 1-28. Superb discussion of the political climate and wider context of the conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Stanley P. World Population and the United Nations: Challenge and Response. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Outstanding follow-up to Symonds and Carder’s book (cited below) detailing U.N. efforts on population policy. Provides a great deal of detail on the 1974 and 1984 conferences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. World Population: Turning the Tide Three Decades of Progress. Boston: Kluwer, 1994. Provides good discussion of both U.N. conferences, placing them in historical perspective and relative to socioeconomic development and resources. Details preparations for the Cairo conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sadik, Nafis, ed. Population: The UNFPA Experience. New York: New York University Press, 1984. Collection of essays presents the results of a task force that described and reviewed the U.N. fund’s activities just prior to the Mexico City conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symonds, Richard, and Michael Carder. The United Nations and the Population Question, 1945-1970. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Presents an excellent history of the U.N. approach to population issues through 1970.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Report of the International Conference on Population, 1984. New York: Author, 1984. The United Nations’ own report on the conference proceedings.

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Categories: History