World Fertility Survey Is Conducted

The World Fertility Survey, which constituted the first extensive collection of well-researched data on fertility and family planning, was carried out in sixty-one countries in order to help plan for population growth and its effects.

Summary of Event

From January 1, 1972, until June 30, 1984, the objective of the World Fertility Survey (WFS), an international research program, was to assess population growth and family-planning efforts around the world. The WFS interviewed 341,300 women from sixty-one countries and provided the most complete picture of population trends of the tropical Americas, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States up to that time. World Fertility Survey
Fertility studies
[kw]World Fertility Survey Is Conducted (Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984)
[kw]Fertility Survey Is Conducted, World (Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984)
[kw]Survey Is Conducted, World Fertility (Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984)
World Fertility Survey
Fertility studies
[g]Europe;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
[g]United Kingdom;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
[g]England;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
[c]Health and medicine;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
[c]Women’s issues;Jan. 1, 1972-June 30, 1984: World Fertility Survey Is Conducted[00560]
Ehrlich, Paul R.
Kendall, Maurice G.
Malthus, Thomas Robert
Notestein, Frank W.

Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric, proposed in 1798 that populations tend to increase faster than food supplies, and eventually mortality slows population growth. This bleak picture was altered when fertility was observed to have decreased following a mortality decline in the United States and in many European countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1940’s, demographer Frank W. Notestein and others developed what became known as “transition theory,” Transition theory of demographic trends the idea that worldwide demographic trends were responses to modernization and socioeconomic conditions. Notestein concluded that fertility declines resulted from changes in the desire for children, and these changes were due to structural changes in society.

Notestein also noted that populations were expanding around the world and most dramatically in the economically disadvantaged areas of the world where mortality but not fertility was declining. He predicted a world population of three billion by the year 2000, but his figures were exceeded by 1960. Notestein assumed that the fast-growing areas of the world were in an earlier stage of the transition and that fertility decline would eventually occur following urbanization, industrialization, mass education, and rising standards of living. In 1958, the demographers Ansley J. Coale Coale, Ansley J. and Edgar M. Hoover Hoover, Edgar M. had calculated that the increasing proportions of dependent youth in Latin America, Africa, and Asia reduced the per-capita income and prevented the accumulation of capital for development.

Biologists Paul R. Ehrlich, in his book The Population Bomb (1968), Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) and Garrett Hardin, Hardin, Garrett in his classic 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” “Tragedy of the Commons, The” (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons] expressed concern about overpopulation. Hardin illustrated how individual use of shared resources can work to the disadvantage of the group. He argued that breeding with no consideration of the destructive consequences for the environment was immoral, and he and Ehrlich called for reducing population growth to replacement levels, or “zero population growth” Zero Population Growth movement —which is achieved when a population’s birthrate equals the death rate.

Policy makers were encouraged to find the best ways to reduce population growth and chose to follow the perceived least-expensive route, which was to offer family-planning programs rather than to invest in development. Measuring the demand for children became a top priority and was begun in the late 1960’s with the Knowledge, Attitude, and Practice (KAP) surveys, Knowledge, Attitude, and Practice surveys which were later criticized as poorly designed and geographically limited.

Not all governments recognized the need for population control, but most were interested in obtaining better information about fertility levels. Funds for economically disadvantaged countries from the industrialized nations increased and were channeled into the study of population trends. The two main funding agencies, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development United States Agency for International Development (USAID) disagreed on how best to approach the problem and brought in a third party, the International Statistical Institute International Statistical Institute (ISI), based in the Netherlands. The association included statisticians whose goals were to develop international statistical standards and advance the use of statistics, but they lost many of their functions when the United Nations Statistical Commission was formed. The eminent statistician Maurice G. Kendall led the move to revitalize ISI, and a world fertility survey was proposed in late 1971. Experts representing the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) were also recruited to assist in the planning stages. Kendall accepted the job of project director on the condition that the WFS headquarters were located in London.

Planning for the surveys started in 1972, and data collection started in 1973. Households were chosen in order to provide a nationally representative sample, and eligible women were selected if ever married (a variable dropped in some surveys) and under the age of fifty. Households were surveyed to identify eligible respondents and to learn about the respondents’ backgrounds and with whom they lived. The standard questions asked in every country covered maternity and marital history, contraceptive knowledge and use, fertility regulation, work history, and husband’s background. Optional “modules” could be added to explore issues such as abortion, family planning, or economic and community factors.

Most of the resulting surveys were considered to be of high quality, and more than 150 technical manuals, bulletins, reports, comparative analyses and research papers were published by the WFS. The WFS helped to document the rise in infant mortality as time between births decreases and the significance of breast-feeding in slowing the arrival of the next child. Most of the countries that participated also used the data to project and plan for population trends and to revise or refocus their family-planning programs.

Consultants in 1980 had advocated continuation of the WFS, but USAID, UNFPA, and ISI decided to stop the WFS partly because of a concern that it would become a permanent institution. ISI created the International Statistical Research Center International Statistical Research Center (ISRC) to provide technical support for future surveys such as those carried out in China and Rwanda. USAID and UNFPA also continued to support both data collection in areas of the world not yet surveyed and further analysis of WFS data. The WFS’s work has been continued through the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program based in the United States.


The World Fertility Survey was a remarkable attempt to gain an understanding of the circumstances under which people choose to have children. The primary objective of the WFS was to collect comparable, high-quality fertility data derived from nationally representative samples of as many countries as possible. Each survey was carried out by the individual country, although technical support and expertise were supplied when needed by ISI. Additional objectives included enhancing the local capabilities for carrying out demographic and statistical research and analyzing and comparing data among countries. The WFS was very successful at the first and third objectives. The WFS is the major source of information about fertility patterns and their context from the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where little was known prior to the survey.

Support for family-planning activities expanded in all parts of the world before and during the WFS. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Commission of the United Nations, and the Population Council were all set up after World War II. By the 1960’s, Americans were aware of population issues as a result of Paul Ehrlich’s book, and additional organizations were founded, such as Zero Population Growth, Population Crisis Committee, and Population Institute. Population studies programs were started or enlarged at a number of universities, including Brown, Chicago, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Princeton.

Data from the WFS provided information for government policy makers, and in the 1980’s, analyses of WFS data dominated the technical journals and served as the basis for numerous Ph.D. theses. The surveys demonstrated that fertility had declined significantly in regions of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, although fertility levels were still high relative to the United States and Europe. Fertility was not declining in sub-Saharan Africa. Notestein’s transition theory based on the European and American trends did not seem adequate to explain these changes. Relationships among contextual variables such as education, labor-force activity, and urbanization varied greatly from one region of the world to the next and did not necessarily enable experts to predict whether contraceptive practice would increase or fertility would decline. National comparisons failed to support Coale and Hoover’s observation of a relationship between population growth and per-capita income. An even bigger disappointment was that access to knowledge about contraception was not necessarily a predictor of who would choose to have a smaller family.

This last discovery ignited much discussion over whether there had been too much attention paid to access to and development of contraceptive technology rather than to efforts to change cultural attitudes. Models framed in terms of the value and economic costs of children to their parents have received more attention. Economist Richard A. Easterlin Easterlin, Richard A. examined three variables: demand for children, supply of children, and the costs of regulating fertility. He measured demand for children within the context of household income and whether that income can cover the costs of rearing the children. John Caldwell Caldwell, John also focused on the economics of childbearing with his ideas about “wealth flows,” which include the concept that parents will value children when the children can generate income for parents and pay for themselves. Modernization often shifts the direction of this flow of wealth, because education becomes more important after modernization, and the cost of rearing children increases. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to experience high fertility, and Caldwell has convincingly explained the resistance to family planning as a function of traditional values and the sharing by extended families of the costs of rearing children.

The debate over the ecological impact of overpopulation did not subside with the WFS’s evidence for high rates of growth in most parts of the world. Ehrlich continued to argue that environmental deterioration is a direct result of population growth. He asserted that the number of people in an area relative to what can comfortably be supported is too high in virtually every region of the world. Barry Commoner, Commoner, Barry a plant physiologist, suggested that the planet’s pollution problems are the results of the kinds of technologies employed rather than of population growth.

The increasing pollution, deforestation, crowding, drought, and periodic famines are well documented and historically seem to have been partly related to the rapid population growth formerly experienced in many parts of the world, although famine is more a factor of poor distribution of food rather than of inadequate global food supplies, which are ample.

There have been successes. Japan has been at or near replacement levels since 1957 and in recent years has dropped well below replacement levels. Taiwan initiated a family-planning program in 1964, and by the end of the twentieth century the country was below replacement levels. The People’s Republic of China abandoned aggressive enforcement of its one-child-per-family policy in the early twenty-first century, owing to its success in dampening fertility and in encouraging a disproportionately smaller female population. India, though still growing, has also experienced a decline in fertility, owing in part to an increase in contraceptive use. In most developed countries, as in Japan, fertility rates have plummeted to levels that will lead to substantial reductions in population, leading some of them, such as Russia, to institute pro-natalist policies aimed at avoiding precipitous declines in population.

Historically, the norms and values underlying the high-fertility regimes were adaptive during periods of high mortality and low population density. These norms and values are deeply held and not easily changed. Reproductive freedom is still considered a basic human right by the United Nations, but the detrimental effects of overcrowding are still evident in some countries, even as others are beginning to experience population decline. World Fertility Survey
Fertility studies

Further Reading

  • Caldwell, John C., and Pat Caldwell. Limiting Population Growth and the Ford Foundation Contribution. London: Frances Pinter, 1986. An excellent history of the development of population programs and research through institutions in the United States.
  • Cleland, John, et al., eds. Reproductive Change in Developing Countries: Insights from the World Fertility Survey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A collection of essays detailing the history, methods, and achievements of the WFS.
  • Coale, Ansley J., and Edgar M. Hoover. Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958. This influential article started a discussion that has not yet been resolved.
  • Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. A revised statement of the Ehrlichs’ position on population growth.
  • Heer, David M., and Jill S. Grigsby. Society and Population. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992. Slim volume presents excellent discussion of population growth relative to environment, economic development, political power, and population legislation and policy.
  • Hodgson, Dennis. “Orthodoxy and Revisionism in American Demography.” Population and Development Review 14 (December, 1988): 541-570. Excellent critical history of whether or not family-planning programs are critical for the reduction of fertility.
  • Notestein, Frank W. “Population: The Long View.” In Food for the World, edited by Theodore W. Schultz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945. This article was the first to alert experts to the rapid growth of contemporary populations.
  • Peters, Gary L., and Robert P. Larkin. Population Geography: Problems, Concepts, and Prospects. 6th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1999. Introductory text that includes discussions of family planning, fertility, and population relative to resources and food supply.
  • United Nations. World Fertility Report, 2003. New York: Author, 2004. Presents data on fertility, marriage rates, contraceptive use, and national policies with respect to childbearing in 192 countries as the early twenty-first century saw marked changes in childbearing linked to social and economic development.
  • _______. World Population Policies, 2003. New York: Author, 2004. Overview of population policies and dynamics for 194 countries. Data range from the mid-1970’s to the early twenty-first century.

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