Insofar as spending on family planning leads to lower fertility rates and smaller numbers of children, it can ease the crushing burden of youth dependency and allow the engines of economic growth to shift into high gear.

Children need to be fed, clothed, and housed. They require lots of resources for health care and schooling. A poor family with 5 or 7 children is less able to provide this support than one with 2 or 3 children. At a national level, a poor country with a high proportion of young children is less able to invest in the health and education for their development and in the factories and infrastructure for their employment than one with more workers for every child.

The potential for rapid economic growth that is created by lower fertility is known as the “demographic dividend.” This dividend can be powerfully catalyzed by increased access to contraception and family planning services. For families with lower fertility, it typically translates into appreciably higher standards of living. At the level of national economies, it can manifest itself in the form of a substantial boost to the growth rate of income per capita and a lowering of the poverty rate.

Capturing the dividend hinges on the availability of economically productive employment for a large portion of the working-age population. That, in turn, requires good policies for labor and financial markets, and carefully constructed trade policies.

The East Asian “Tigers” (that is, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) offer striking evidence of the economic benefits of fertility decline, much of which was achieved through increased access to, and reliance on, modern contraception. These economic super performers cut their birth rates precipitously in the 1970s and 1980s, and used the resulting demographic breathing room to stunning advantage through judicious education and health policies, sound macroeconomic management, and careful regional and global economic engagement. Additional support can be found in the experiences of China, India, Indonesia, and Ireland.

At the other end of the spectrum, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have fared much worse developmentally, in no small measure due to their inability to escape the overwhelming challenge of caring for ever-larger numbers of children. In many countries women are still having an average of 5, 6, or 7 children. Millions of these women would like smaller family sizes but are not able to access affordable contraception.

Few people realize that income per capita in sub-Saharan Africa was actually three times higher than that in East Asia in the mid-1970s. But since then, income growth in East Asia has blown the socks off that in Africa. The dominant enabler of East Asia’s vastly superior growth performance was its precipitous decline in fertility, which allowed East Asia to escape the poverty trap that continues to grip Africa.

If world leaders are serious about helping Africa lift itself up economically, they would do well to pay greater heed to the compelling evidence on the economic benefits of investments in family planning. Such evidence deserves to be a major pillar of the recommendations that emerge from the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.

Photo: A nurse speaks to a young woman about family planning at a health clinic in Jos, Nigeria. (Reuters /Packard Foundation/Liz Gilbert)