Sub-Saharan African countries have the highest population growth rates in the world, and are also the poorest. In response to a variety of global and local forces, during the 1980s and 1990s two thirds of sub- Saharan African countries adopted national population policies to reduce population growth. Drawing from existing research and using the texts of population policies to illustrate key points, this article summarises the factors that drove population policy adoption in the region. Globally, powerful donors with significant leverage promoted population policies as a solution to lagging socioeconomic development while international organizations spread norms about women’s rights and reproductive health. Locally, technocrats working within relevant ministries backed efforts to increase contraceptive prevalence, and population policies furthered political projects unrelated to population. The interplay of global and local forces led to governments adopting population policies. Ultimately, continued high desired fertility and limited implementation capacity have prevented population policies from significantly lowering fertility, but these policies have likely increased the availability of contraception, created important discursive space related to gender and sexuality, and provided countries with an opportunity to test procedures and approaches for policy-making on sensitive issues.