The World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August-4 September 2002. The meeting was a follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 but with a mandate broader than that of the Rio conference: the Summit was to consider strategies toward sustainable development in all its dimensions. According to the opening paragraph of the Plan of Implementation adopted by the Johannesburg Summit, the Rio conference “provided the fundamental principles and the programme of action for achieving sustainable development.” But while reaffirming commitment to the Rio principles, the Plan states that it intends to “further build on the achievements made since UNCED and expedite the realization of the remaining goals.”

A topic conspicuously missing from the deliberations of the Rio conference was population, even though rapid population growth has a plausible bearing on sustainable development and specifically on the problem of poverty, an issue at the center of the discussions concerning sustainability. It had been expected that Johannesburg would make amends for that omission. In the ten years between the two conferences, the size of the world's population increased by some 790 million persons. Of this growth, 754 million, or 95 percent, occurred in the countries the United Nations classifies as “less developed.” The population of these countries grew by 18 percent between the two conferences, as compared with a 3 percent growth in the more developed countries. The countries classified as “least developed“—a subset of the less developed countries consisting of 48 countries, predominantly African, with a 2002 population of nearly 700 million—grew during the interconference period by 29 percent.

This record of population growth since the Rio conference may be supplemented by the projections of the United Nations up to 2050. The medium variant of these projections for the next 48 years envisages a slight population decline in the more developed countries and an addition of some 2 billion persons to the less developed group. For the least developed countries, the UN projects a population of more than 1.8 billion in 2050, some 164 percent larger than the current population size.

Although the magnitudes of past population growth and its likely future dynamics are well known, they attracted very little attention at the Johannesburg meeting. The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, a concise political document issued at the closing of the conference along with the Plan of Implementation, pledges “to place particular focus on, and give priority attention to, the fight against the worldwide conditions that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people.” It then proceeds to specifics: “Among these conditions are: chronic hunger; malnutrition; foreign occupation; armed conflicts; illicit drug problems; organized crime; corruption; natural disasters; illicit arms trafficking; trafficking, in persons; terrorism; intolerance and incitement to racial, ethnic, religious and other hatreds; xenophobia; and endemic, communicable and chronic diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis” (Paragraph 19 of the Declaration,).

The Plan of Implementation, a 27,000-word document, was the main product of the Johannesburg meeting. Apart from a mention of the Cairo conference on Population and Development, the Plan's treatment of population issues is confined to health. The relevant section—section VI, titled Health and sustainable development—is reproduced below in full. (Paragraph numbers have been retained.) It presents a statement of goals couched in general exhortative terms (“integrate,”“promote,”“provide,”“improve,”“develop”), and specifies some quantitative targets, notably to reduce “by the year 2015, mortality rates for infants and children under 5 by two thirds, and maternal mortality rates by three quarters,” and “reduction of HIV prevalence among young men and women aged 15–24 by 25 per cent in the most affected countries by 2005 and globally by 2010.” The full text of the Plan can be found at