Reproductive Health and Economic Development: What Connections Should We Focus On?
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Reproductive Health and Economic Development: What Connections Should We Focus On?
Economists, demographers, and policymakers have long debated the relationships between reproductive health (RH), population change, and economic well-being. In recent years, however, a growing number of studies across disciplines have shown that declines in fertility affect the structure of a country’s population. The emerging age structure has a lower dependency ratio (fewer young and older people per working-age adult), which creates a window of opportunity for economic development.1 To take advantage of this opportunity, nations and families must also invest more resources in health, education, and productivity—referred to as human capital. Reproductive health—defined in this brief as the use of effective contraception, use of health care during pregnancy and childbirth, and health care for infants—is a critical component of human capital. Investments in RH are linked to lower fertility and reduced maternal and child morbidity and mortality, thereby improving overall health and quality of life.
Policymakers are faced with critical questions as to the extent to which improvements in RH contribute to broader economic returns. This brief examines the emerging evidence base for answering three questions about the relationship between RH and three important areas of human capital development:
••Do healthier women with fewer children invest more in human capital?
••Do women participate more in labor markets?
••Does better RH increase a woman’s ability to earn and save more, and thus help her and her family escape poverty?
RH and Human Capital
Women who have better RH status tend to invest more resources in their own and their children’s health, education, and future productivity. Research suggests three pathways through which improved RH fosters investments in human capital. As women have better access to high-quality RH information and services, their overall health and their children’s health tend to improve. Developments in maternal and child health also contribute to longer life expectancy, thereby creating a stronger rationale for women to invest in their children’s education as well as their own. Finally, access to family planning services contributes to a reduction in fertility, which frees up household resources and allows women to make more investments in education.
New evidence supports these arguments. A vast literature in medicine, public health, and the social sciences agrees that improved maternal nutrition and increased access to RH services and commodities leads to higher birth weights, lower levels of child mortality, better child nutrition, and improved cognitive development.2 At the same time, a growing number of studies demonstrate that children born to malnourished mothers or mothers who experienced
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND
WHAT CONNECTIONS SHOULD WE
BY SHAREEN JOSHI
Each birth can reduce a woman’s involvement in the labor force by up to
higher were the wages earned by women in Bangladesh who received RH services.
Reproductive health is a critical component of human capital.
www.prb.org REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH 2 AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
a negative health shock (such as suffering from malnutrition or
contracting an infectious disease) during pregnancy are more
likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.3 Children
who experience better physical health and fewer negative
health shocks during their lifetimes also reach a higher, more
productive potential and effectively reap the benefits from
investments in their health and education. Given that better-educated
children are expected to be more productive in the
future, parents of healthier children are motivated to further
invest in their child’s schooling.
Health policy programs and interventions can also have a posi-tive
impact on educational attainment and schooling. In Matlab,
Bangladesh, for example, mothers in designated treatment areas
received access to integrated family planning and maternal and
child health services over a 20-year period. As a result, children
from these treatment areas received higher test scores than their
peers from comparison areas where women did not receive
improved services.4 In Tanzania, providing iodine supplementa-tion
to pregnant women and children had the rather significant
effect of increasing child schooling attendance by about half a
year, with larger gains for girls.5
The evidence also reveals that women who delay, space, or
limit their births—and have fewer children—have more oppor-tunities
to allocate their time and resources toward investing in
each child’s health and education. This idea is referred to as the
“quantity-quality trade-off” and has recently been validated by
evidence from several countries. In Matlab, declines in fertil-ity
and improved maternal health ultimately contributed to an
increase in children’s educational attainment and lower levels of
child labor.6 In Colombia, women between the ages of 15 to 19
who received the services of the PROFAMILIA family planning
program obtained seven more weeks of schooling each year
than women who did not receive these services. This implies
that for women who complete an average of seven years of
schooling, receiving family planning services could help them
gain as much as one more year of schooling.7 Both studies are
careful to point out that better access to RH programs led to
lower fertility, and that the lower fertility led to higher levels of
education among children. By ensuring that the programs were
not implemented in response to demand or patterns of declining
fertility, the studies demonstrate that family planning interven-tions
positively affect women’s educational attainment.
Finally, there is also evidence that investments in maternal
health services lead to higher life expectancy and lower levels of
maternal mortality, which in turn lead to higher levels of literacy
and schooling among women. In Sri Lanka, a 70 percent drop
in maternal mortality risk between 1946 and 1953 created a 15
percent increase in life expectancy for school-age girls, which
led to increasing female literacy by 2.5 percent and female years
of education by 4 percent.8 In Africa, reduced life expectancy
due to HIV significantly lowered subsequent investments in
schooling: Each year of life lost resulted in five fewer months of
schooling completed.9 However, these findings may overesti-mate
the true impact of health on educational attainment, given
that schooling levels can be determined by factors others than
health. For example, poor health may increase the demands on
the time of caretakers and negatively pressure household bud-gets,
which in turn may adversely affect educational attainment
and attendance. Nevertheless, the impact of poor health on
education and schooling outcomes is significant.
RH and Labor Force Participation
Lower fertility and improved RH can affect labor force participa-tion
in two important ways. Firstly, family planning and access to
RH services help women to better control the timing and number
of births. Improving a woman’s capacity to regulate her fertility
and to plan childbearing allows her to redirect resources toward
schooling, job training, and working outside the home. Secondly,
children who benefited from their mother’s quantity-quality trade-offs
may also be presented with greater labor market opportuni-ties
in the future.
Recent evidence from both large-scale and small-scale studies
confirms the extensive relationship between improved RH and
labor force participation. One study of 97 countries found that
higher fertility is associated with lower labor force participation
of women during their fertile years. On average, each addi-tional
child reduces female labor force participation by 5 to 10
percentage points for women between the ages of 20 and 44.
When summing up these estimates over the reproductive life of
an average woman, the study findings imply that each birth can
reduce a woman’s involvement in the labor force by as much as
Country-specific studies that analyze changes at the individual
level also find similar effects. In Colombia, for example, recent
evidence suggests that women who had access to family plan-ning
as teenagers completed about half a year more of school-ing
over their lifetimes, were 7 percent more likely to work in the
formal sector, and were 2 percent less likely to cohabit with male
partners outside of marriage.11 In Indonesia, a reduction of one
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT www.prb.org 3
birth on average over a period of 20 years increased the likeli-hood
of female labor force participation by 20 percent.12
Research has shown that health shocks, especially nega-tive
shocks such as contracting HIV and sexually transmitted
infections, may also affect a woman’s ability to work outside the
home. In South Africa, evidence from a nationally representative
survey suggests that being HIV positive is associated with a 6 to
7 percentage-point increase in the likelihood of being unem-ployed.
13 A study in Kenya showed that providing access to
HIV treatment increased employment by 20 percent and hours
worked by 35 percent.14
In some contexts, however, female labor force participation
may decline as fertility decreases or as educational attainment
increases. For example, in Bangladesh, providing family planning
and RH services to adult women in assigned treatment areas
significantly improved their health and educational well-being,
yet their participation in wage employment declined. Social
and cultural norms that restrict female mobility, particularly for
wealthy and high-status women, may allow women to receive
RH services and have fewer children but may also require her to
work at home rather than to engage in salaried labor. However,
estimates indicate that those women who received RH services
and who chose a paid job still earned wages that were 30 per-cent
higher than those women who did not receive services. This
outcome is largely driven by improved schooling opportunities
and the resulting higher wages for women in treatment villages.15
RH and Income/Assets
Declining fertility and improved RH ultimately have a positive
impact on income growth and asset accumulation at both
the household and country levels. There are several channels
through which lower fertility and improved health may improve
a household’s economic well-being.16 To begin with, healthier
people work more and are physically and cognitively stronger,
and are therefore more likely to be productive, to earn higher
incomes, and to accumulate more assets. Secondly, healthier
people live longer and consequently have more opportunities to
benefit economically from human capital investments. This posi-tive
relationship between health and wealth, referred to as the
“health-wealth” hypothesis, is reinforced by decreasing fertility
and the quantity-quality trade-off.
At the country level, improved RH can affect income and asset
growth in additional ways. Better health leads to greater longev-ity,
which can lead to higher levels of savings by individuals who
anticipate extended periods of retirement. Increased savings
creates more accumulated financial capital that can be used for
future investment and asset accumulation. Furthermore, lower
fertility and slower population growth may increase the number
of working-age individuals relative to the number of children. A
larger share of working-age individuals in the population is an
important determinant for increased labor force productivity,
higher per capita income, and long-term economic growth.
Many studies now show that early-life health shocks such as
poor RH and maternal malnutrition are associated with a range
of outcomes, including: decreased cognitive test scores and
lower schooling attainment; lower occupational status and earn-ings;
nonparticipation in the labor force; and chronic disease
and disability before—and more notably after—the age of 50.17
Other studies show that infections during pregnancy, such as
hookworm and malaria, can also have lifelong impacts on health
Estimates from smaller studies are consistant with these find-ings.
In China, evidence from a longitudinal survey suggests that
better health of individual household members is associated
with higher incomes. People in excellent health had household
income levels 166.6 yen, or approximately 10 percent to 13
percent higher than those with poorer health, and this effect
was often more pronounced for women in rural areas.19 Simi-larly,
a set of studies from Bangladesh suggests that declines in
fertility and child mortality contributed to poverty alleviation
through: significantly more schooling for sons, better nutrition
as measured by body mass index (BMI) for daughters, and
comparatively higher wage rates for more educated women.20
Households in treatment villages reported up to a 25 percent
gain in household assets per adult; moreover, the research find-ings
also show a decrease in the shares of household assets
that rely on child labor. Such households held a larger share of
assets in financial savings, jewelry, orchards and ponds, hous-
Roz Allen/Creative Commons
4 www.prb.org REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
ing, and consumer durables, which may be better substitutes for
old-age support than support traditionally provided by children.
At the country level, much new evidence supports the hypoth-esis
that a healthier, better-educated, and more productive
population has lower levels of child mortality. Increases in child
survival rates ultimately reduce the demand for more children,
as parents can be more certain that they need not have many
children in order to maintain their desired family size. As the fer-tility
rate falls, the number of working-age individuals increases
relative to the number of child dependents. At the same time,
fewer resources are needed to meet the needs of a smaller
youth cohort, which means that more resources become avail-able
for other economic development investments. This shift in
the population age structure creates a window of opportunity
for increased economic growth and productivity—the “demo-graphic
While demographic pressures are alleviated whenever the
fertility rate falls, countries need to take advantage of the
released resources to effectively reap a demographic dividend.
Together with decreasing fertility, increased investments in
the education and health of the youth cohort can lead to a
higher-skilled labor force and greater labor force participation;
together, these increases contribute to higher rates of savings
and investment. These changes result in higher per capita
income and accelerated economic development. Evidence
of a demographic dividend can been seen in the economic
growth and productivity in East and Southeast Asia, Latin
America, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Pacific
Islands.21 The dividend began in East Asia in the 1970s, in
South Asia in the 1980s, and in sub-Saharan Africa beginning
after 2000. Estimates indicate that a rise in the ratio of working
to nonworking populations may have increased the annual
output per capita growth rates in these regions by as much as
0.5 to 0.6 percentage points between 1970 and 2000. Such
dividends are increasingly highlighted in discussions about the
need for investing in RH in sub-Saharan Africa.
Social scientists and policymakers agree that expanded access
to RH services lowers fertility and improves maternal and child
health. New literature argues that improving access to RH ser-vices
may also contribute to economic development and helps
individuals and families escape from poverty. The pathways
highlighted by this literature are quite complex. Moreover, the
research consists of a broad array of methods and conclusions.
Large cross-national data sets provide estimates of associations
between RH interventions and economic outcomes. Country-specific
studies often exploit policy experiments to estimate the
precise impact of specific RH interventions, but these studies are
generally small in scale and their conclusions cannot necessarily
be generalized to other geographies, economies, or contexts.
Despite the limitations of recent research, a consensus is never-theless
emerging. Reproductive health improvements:
•• Extend life expectancy for mothers and children.
•• Increase incentives to invest in schooling and other forms of
•• Create opportunities for participation in labor markets.
•• Raise individuals’ capacities to be productive in labor
•• Lead to higher incomes and higher levels of asset
Improving access to RH services may be an especially effective
(and cost-effective) intervention for improving people’s health,
education, and productivity—which can help them to escape
poverty. Reproductive health certainly offers many benefits, but
one of the challenges decisionmakers face is how to allocate
limited resources across the range of efforts that contribute to
economic development—including, for example, education,
infrastructure, and resource management. Ultimately, further
study will be required to identify the potential advantages to
investing in RH services compared to other efforts; until then,
however, countries with high fertility and high levels of maternal
and child mortality would be well-advised to expand access to
RH services as part of their economic development strategies.
Such investments could provide many immediate rewards, as
well as health, social, and economic benefits for years to come.
Shareen Joshi is a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown
University, in the School of Foreign Service. Her research
focuses on international economic development, poverty allevia-tion,
health, and demographic change. This brief was under-written
through the generosity of the William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation, as part of the foundation’s Population and Poverty
Research Network (PopPov). The views expressed are those of
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