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People: the Greatest Unmet Need

November 19, 2003

Volume 5 / Number 36

Dear Colleague:

The road to development is not paved with condoms, but people. A new report by the demographers at the UN Population Division (not to be confused with the baby busters at the UN Population Fund), makes the point that economic development in many Asian countries has been dependent upon the migration of laborers from neighboring countries. Flatlining fertility rates may inhibit, not promote, economic development.

Steven W. Mosher


People: the Greatest Unmet Need

The report has a mind-numbing title-Levels and Trends of International Migration to Selected Countries in Asia-but leads to an eye-opening

conclusion: Economic development in many countries in Asia has been dependent upon large inputs of migrant labor.

Migrant workers began to trickle into Western Asia as early as the 1930s, as the region’s indigenous population proved insufficient to realize its growing economic potential. Subsequent economic development was as much dependent upon the availability of labor-rich populations as it was on the discovery of oil. As the report points out, The ambitious development programs undertaken by these programs increased labor demand significantly, a demand that was met by recruiting migrant workers in large number.(1)

The economic boom of the 1970s, triggered by higher oil prices, was sustained by a massive influx of immigrants. Local shortages of manpower were offset by a massive influx of immigrants which increased at an annual rate of 19 percent from 1975-80.(2) From 1975 to 1990, the number of migrant workers in Western Asia increased from 1.125 to 5.218 million.(3) Since then, dependence on migrants from neighboring Arab nations as well as non-Arab countries has continued.

The situation in Israel is somewhat different, the report points out. With birthrates well below replacement, Israel’s economy has survived over the past decade and a half largely because of the steady influx of Jews from Russia and the other former Soviet republics, combined with short-term migrant labor from countries like Romania, the Philippines, and


A number of East and Southeast Asian countries were able to maintain economic growth in a face of declining fertility, by turning to immigrant labor. Such countries as Japan, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand, as well as the city of Hong Kong, relied upon manpower available from neighboring low-income and labor-surplus


Throughout much of Asia, labor shortages are so acute that the financial crisis of 1997 saw no decline in demands for migrant workers in certain sectors. Had migrant workers not been available, that is to say, if population control programs had succeeded in flatlining birth rates everywhere, development in many countries would have stalled because of labor shortages.

Despite the crucial role played by migrant labor throughout Asia and much of the rest of the world, U.S. foreign policy continues to rely heavily on population planning and fertility reduction to jumpstart development. Population control ideologues at USAID continue to claim that there is a vast unmet need for contraception, in the face of infant deaths for lack of life-saving basics. In fact, the greatest unmet need in many countries is for workers. Julian Simon was right when he called people, the ultimate resource.


1. Levels and Trends of International Migration to Selected Countries in Asia, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, New York, 2003, 16-17; .

2. Ibid., 19.

3. Ibid., 19.

4. Ibid., 51, 53.

5. Ibid., 70-87.

6. Ibid., 1.

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