A World of 7 Billion: Cause for Scare or Celebration?

Let us not forget that a rising population of 7 billion means a greater pool from which genius and innovation can emerge.
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The UN has chosen today as a symbolic one on which the world's 7 billionth person might be born. The fact that it's Halloween is, as The New Yorker jokes, "presumably just a coincidence."

In the ideal world, reaching that psychological threshold would be seen as success for humanity, not a scare. We've heard warnings of a population bomb in the past, but in today's pessimistic world, lurching from one financial, economic and political crisis to the next, the voices are louder this time, questioning whether we're nearing the limit of what this shared earth of ours can support. Compounding fears, world food prices are high and volatile while 12 million in the Horn of Africa are in urgent need.

Long-term developments on the population front are a mixed bag, as the United National Population Fund just reported. Concerns about the future should not obscure the gains made, particularly for the poorest among us. Life expectancy has shot up since the 1950s, while child mortality has more than halved. Yet almost everywhere, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Let us not forget that a rising population of 7 billion means a greater pool from which genius and innovation can emerge. Among those born today in Lagos or Kampala could be a potential Nobel Prize winner -- someone who might end a war, cure a life-threatening disease or become the next Steve Jobs, improving life in a way that none of us can now predict. But if this person is born into poverty with no opportunity for escape, their potential will remain unrealized -- and it will be the world's loss.

What can we do to maximize the opportunities arising from a world of 7 billion? The organization I'm a part of, BRAC, a global development organization based in Bangladesh, knows a thing or two about improving life in crowded spaces. Of sovereign states with an area of over 300 square miles (that is, not counting city and island statelets like Singapore and Bahrain), Bangladesh ranks as the most densely populated country, with 162 million people squeezed into an area smaller than Iowa. Of these, a full 110 million are touched by BRAC in some way. Along with our growing presence outside our native Bangadesh, this make us the world's largest nonprofit.

Western philanthropies are increasingly taking note of the solutions BRAC has developed in Bangladesh as we expand to provide more opportunities for the poor elsewhere in Asia, in Africa and in Haiti. As I wrote last week, we're cultivating partnerships with like-minded groups like The MasterCard Foundation, which is helping to scale up our "microfinance plus" approach in Uganda -- the world's youngest country, with a median age of just 15.

Here's one of the main lessons of the BRAC experience: It's time to start favoring a bottom-up approach when it comes to employment and opportunity. We need to start looking at the developing world's growing pool of young people as an underutilized asset rather than a liability to society. As we've discovered in Bangladesh, and as we're increasingly finding in Africa -- of the 20 countries with the youngest populations, all but two are in Africa -- the poor will lift themselves out of poverty when they are given the chance to do so.

We can create these chances in many ways: microfinance facilities, health care provision, education and more. But at the heart of it, we need to approach development in a way that favors individual empowerment and entrepreneurship. BRAC, for instance, pilots and replicates workable models for self-employment. We create networks of micro-entrepreneurs to address social needs like the provision of basic but vital medical services. Rather than distributing free medicine, for instance, we'll create jobs using a business model that allows a woman in a village to earn money offering basic medical goods and services to her neighbors in a sustainable way that benefits everybody. And we routinize and replicate these processes over and over again, to eventually reach millions.

To maximize change, we should focus our efforts on girls and women. Adolescent girls, according to Maria Eitel of the Nike Foundation, another BRAC partner, "are unique change agents." Experts often point to empowerment of women as an end result of economic growth, but an increasing body of evidence shows the converse is also true. When we engage a girl starting at the age of 12, keep her in school, allow her to grow into a woman, to make her own livelihood and to choose if and when to have children, the knock-on effects are tremendous. The point isn't just slower population growth, but a stronger society as a whole.

The aim is to allow everybody -- rich and poor, north and south -- to bring about whatever change they may seek in their own lives. Innate talent is distributed equally around the world at birth, knowing no bounds of geography or class. Opportunity is not. We need to redress that imbalance if this world of 7 billion is to prosper as a whole.

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