Editor’s note: Ruth Levine, director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program, delivered these remarks at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting in Chicago on April 28th. Among the attendees were Hewlett Foundation’s grantee organizations, including researchers and communications specialists from universities, think tanks, and other groups working on reproductive health, population dynamics, and women’s empowerment, both internationally and in the United States.
It’s not by accident that “demography” and “democracy” share a common root. The word demos referred to the common people of an ancient Greek state. Democracy: rule by common people; demography: counting common people. And while you can practice the discipline of demography in any regime, democracy cannot exist without demography.
I mean that in three ways – ways that resonate in 2017 at least as much as they did in the seventh century B.C.
First, politics. Just think of the census, which in the United States and many other countries is the basis on which political representation is apportioned. It is also the basis for on which resources are allocated to public programs. Demographic skills and methods are crucial to ensure accurate and fair representation. That accuracy and fairness – each person counts equally – is at the beating heart of democratic institutions that we can trust with our vote, our taxes and, in time of war, far more than that.
Second, demography bolsters democracy through contributions to sound public policy. In whatever country you work in (or on), many of you use information about births, deaths, migration, and social and economic status to help inform policymakers about the nature of problems affecting societies, the underlying behavioral patterns, and the impact of public policies.
Some of this work is in research about fundamental patterns of human health and behavior and some is in development of methodologies. Maybe you never have the chance to talk with anyone who’s designing policy solutions and maybe you don’t want to, but your work matters because others can use it. Other work is more applied and immediately accessible to the policy community. Maybe you’re an advocate who uses the findings from others’ research. Maybe you are in the policy scrum – testifying, working with staff in national or subnational legislatures, even helping to write regulations. Whatever your role, the type of work done within this community helps ensure that public policy has the best impact for the most people. In doing that, it contributes to a stronger contract between citizens and the state.
What are some examples? Well, it’s from this community that the crucial insights have come about how the well-being of women has multi-generational echoes for families, communities and larger societies. It’s from this community that we have the tools to analyze the economic and social impacts of the “youth bulge” in some parts of the world, the “birth dearth” in others, and the interactions between the two. It’s within this community that we can examine the facts about abortion without shouting – or whispering. It’s from this community that we have the potential to understand patterns of human migration, and to project the human costs of climate change. And much more.
Third, demography reinforces a healthy democracy through public education. Understanding who we are as a people – what the rich tapestry of human experience looks like, globally, nationally and in our own neighborhood – requires having high quality and credible information about many of things population scientists specialize in. You are sense-makers and myth-busters. Without a population-level view, we might all be tempted to think that the people who speak the loudest and who take up the most space in the public eye are actually in the majority. Because of your work, we know they are not.
It’s a big responsibility to be so important to healthy, thriving democratic states and institutions. In countries where the democratic processes are young and in formation, demographers in central statistics offices, universities, and other settings can work to make sure that transparency and facts are built into government practices. Even in more established democracies, democratic values sometimes compete with baser instincts. That’s the time – this is the time – to put even more energy into essential supportive work like counting, understanding, and sharing information about populations – about people. It’s also a time to be on the alert about how foes of democracy might try to undermine demographic work, whether through underfunding and deskilling a census, fomenting skepticism about objective facts, or failing to place priority on quality research as an underpinning of policy design.
You are part of an international community of people who express the values of openness and reason through the work you do every day. It’s a particularly good moment to make sure that community is strong, imbued with a sense of solidarity. So make new connections with colleagues here, and find ways to support each other throughout the year. We at the Hewlett Foundation are certainly pleased to be able, in our small ways, to be able to provide support and to make connections that serve your work. Demographers, we are counting on you!