Population Research and Policy Review 22: 575–583, 2003.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The surprising global variation in replacement fertility
THOMAS J. ESPENSHADE, JUAN CARLOS GUZMAN & CHARLES F.
Ofﬁce of Population Research, Wallace Hall, 2nd Floor, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Abstract. It is frequently assumed by the general public and also by some population experts
that the value of replacement-level fertility is everywhere an average of 2.1 lifetime births per
woman. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The global variation in replacement fertility is
substantial, ranging by almost 1.4 live births from less than 2.1 to nearly 3.5. This range is due
almost entirely to cross-country differences in mortality, concentrated in the less developed
world. Policy makers need to be sensitive to own-country replacement rates. Failure to do
so could result in fertility levels that are below replacement and lead to long-run population
decline. For example, the current replacement total fertility rate for the East Africa region is
2.94. Lowering fertility to 2.10 would, under current mortality conditions, result in a regional
birthrate 29 percent below replacement.
It is frequently assumed by the general public, the media, and even by some
demographers that the value of replacement-level fertility is universally 2.1.
For example, in an article about recent dramatic declines in fertility in some
developing countries, Crossette (2002: D8) notes, “Today, village women
and slum families in some of the poorest countries are beginning to prove
[the experts] wrong, as fertility rates drop faster than predicted toward the
replacement level – 2.1 children for the average mother”. The 2000 Revision
of the United Nations (2001) world population projections refers to “the”
replacement level as a total fertility rate of 2.1. Finally, after assessing trends
in total fertility rates for 143 developing countries from 1950 to 2000, John
Bongaarts (2002: 2) concludes, “It is highly unlikely that developing coun-
tries will converge on replacement fertility of 2.1 children per woman as is
often assumed in population projections”.
The global variation in replacement-level fertility is shown in Figure 1.
It is substantial, ranging from a low of 2.05 for Réunion to a high of 3.43
in Sierra Leone. A majority of the world’s countries – and all of the more
developed ones – have replacement-level total fertility rates within 0.1 of
2.1. But roughly 80 developing countries display replacement fertility rates
higher than 2.2. This range of behaviors shows that there is not just one
universal constant for replacement-level total fertility; instead, the values for
replacement fertility are highly country-speciﬁc.