World Fertility Survey

views updated


The World Fertility Survey (WFS) was one of the most important international undertakings in demographic data collection and analysis of the twentieth century. Between 1973 and 1984, 66 countries carried out comparable surveys of human fertility. Forty four of these were developing countries that received substantial financial and technical assistance channeled through WFS's headquarters. Thus, an impressive geographical coverage was achieved, though some of the largest countries (China, India, Brazil, and the Soviet Union) declined to participate.

The idea for this international program probably originated with Reimert Ravenholt, the forceful head of the Office of Population at the U.S. Agency for International Development, as a means to resolve conflicting assessments of the fertility impact of family planning programs. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities gave its support for the project and these two organizations became the dominant financial sponsors of the WFS.

Coordination of the enterprise was entrusted to the International Statistical Institute, based in the Netherlands, which brought the necessary scientific respectability and political independence. The institute appointed the eminent British statistician Maurice Kendall (1907–1983) to head the program, which, at his insistence, was based in London. Thus this unique program was funded by two U.S.-based organizations, managed in the Netherlands, and executed in the United Kingdom.

Because of its mandate to yield internationally comparable data, the WFS developed core instruments to be used in all developing countries. These consisted of a household schedule or roster, and a more detailed questionnaire to be administered to ever-married women of reproductive age. Single women were also included in some surveys. Only 3 of the 44 surveys also canvassed husbands.

The core questionnaire for women included complete marriage and pregnancy histories, and sections on socioeconomic background, contraception, breastfeeding, and fertility preferences. This content was not linked to any theory of fertility, but proved ideal for demographic description. The survey allowed a degree of flexibility in the form of optional sets of questions that permitted more in-depth analysis of specific topics. Only two such "modules" were commonly used: one on family planning and one that enquired into biological determinants of childbearing other than contraception.

The imperative to maximize quality of information drove the data collection strategy. Questionnaires were carefully translated into all major languages. Female interviewers were specially recruited and intensively trained. They worked in teams under close supervision. Major efforts were put into producing clean, well-documented, standardized data sets, a pioneering emphasis that WFS's successor, the Demographic and Health Surveys project, has maintained.

The WFS developed a formidable analytic capacity to complement its data collection expertise. The survey made significant contributions to analytic methods such as the adaptation of linear models to individual-level measures of fertility and the application of hazard models to event histories. Its contribution to a greater understanding of the determinants of fertility change was less impressive, nor did it provide a conclusive answer to key policy questions concerning the impact of state-sponsored family planning programs. The name of the enterprise notwithstanding, the World Fertility Survey's contribution to an understanding of childhood mortality probably exceeded its contribution to studies of fertility.

See also: Demographic and Health Surveys; Demographic Surveys, History and Methodology of.


Cleland, John, and John Hobcraft. 1985. Reproductive Change in Developing Countries: Insights from the World Fertility Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cleland, John, and Christopher Scott. 1987. The World Fertility Survey: An Assessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kendall, Sir Maurice. 1979. "The World Fertility Survey: Current Status and Findings." Johns Hopkins University Population Reports, Series M(3).

Population Information Program. 1985. "Fertility and Family Planning Surveys: An Update." Johns Hopkins University Population Reports, Series M(8).

John Cleland

About this article

World Fertility Survey

Updated About content Print Article


World Fertility Survey