New Internationalist

Malthus And Morality

Issue 176

new internationalist
issue 176 - October 1987

Malthus and morality
In 1972 the US spent three times more on family planning in
the Third World than it did on health. But in 1986 the US cut off all funding
to the UN's Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned
Parenthood Federation. Peter Stalker explains why.

The 1987 State of World Population Report is written in code. Nothing new about that the UN's Fund for Population Activities, who produced the Report, is not noted for plain speaking. And most readers of such documents understand the code so this does not much matter. But the average NI reader might be quite surprised if she ponders its final section:

'Population Growth - Threat or Triumph'?' This goes to some trouble to refute the idea that population growth is desirable.

You might wonder why UNFPA should expend quite so much effort in arguing against such a crackpot idea. Who does believe such things anyway?

Well, some rather important people: right-wing ideologues with the ear of the US Administration. And they have got the UN seriously rattled. In August 1986 the US Agency for International Development (USAID) withheld all funding from UNFPA.

All this is very strange. It isn't so long ago that the advocates of population control were being attacked not from the right but from the left. Family planners used to be condemned as lackeys of US imperialism who wanted to suppress the dark threatening hordes of the Third World poor.

A bit of history might shed some light The man usually credited with starting the whole population ball rolling was an Englishman, Thomas Malthus. In his Essay on Population in 1803 he was the first person to consider what would happen if the world's population were to continue to grow unabated. Like plants that jostle for a bare minimum of soil and light, human beings would eventually fill all the available territory, he warned.

True to his predictions, the population of Europe and North America did indeed grow dramatically in the 150 years that followed. But, contrary to his expectations, his gloomy prognosis was disproved. Human beings turned out to be more intelligent than dandelions and modified their behaviour to match the new circumstances. Parents in the new cities, with their clean water and sewage systems, found their healthy offspring more expensive to feed, clothe and educate so they decided, without the help of any population policy, to limit the size of their families.

Life in the poorer countries remained dangerous and short, however, with disease continuing to take its regular toll of young children. But after World War II, health and sanitation started to improve there too. Soon the Malthusian spectre rose up again as populations soared.

But the Sixties were an optimistic decade. For every problem there was a technical solution. And the technical solution to the population problem was contraception. So Western experts were soon jetting off to poor countries to run surveys and design massive family-planning programmes. And when these didn't meet with immediate success, yet more surveys were done and more programmes developed - until, ultimately, it was decided that, if parents could not be trusted to do the right thing, the decision had to be taken out of their hands. Helicopters dropped experts onto unsuspecting villages in Nepal; Tunisian women were coerced into buses to have loops inserted without explanation; African women were given contraceptive injections against their or their husbands' wills.

Not surprisingly this produced a strong counter-reaction. Radical voices in developing countries began to accuse the West of plotting to keep down the numbers in the Third World so as to maintain their own privileged position. Come the Seventies it was time for a rethink. So some of the experts investigated further. They discovered that people in poor countries persisted in having so many children because they wanted them. The reason seemed to be that the improvements to sanitation and health in Europe and North America had occurred alongside general economic progress. Parents with higher incomes had less need of child labour. So children turned from an asset into a liability and, in academic parlance, a 'demographic transition' took place as high rates of death and birth were replaced by low ones.

In poor countries, however, incomes did not rise as death rates began to fall. So parents actually welcomed the possibility of a large family: an extra pair of hands could soon pay for itself by working in the fields as well as ensuring security for the parents' old age.

So a new population wisdom emerged: only when people were financially secure could they risk smaller families. Once they were better-off they would start using contraceptives of their own accord. 'Take care of the people and the population will take care of itself was their slogan. If you like labels, you could call this new group the 'developmentalists'.

By 1974 - year of the first ever World Population Conference in Bucharest - there were roughly three population camps. In the first were the Malthusians. Led by USAID, they argued that people in the Third World were poor because they were having too many children. This position received support from an emerging environmental movement and an influential new report - Limits to Growth from the Club of Rome - which warned that the world was running out of oil and almost everything else. The second camp was inhabited largely by a group of sceptical, defensive Third World governments, who often refused to consider that they had a population problem at all. In the third camp - implicitly supporting the Third World position - were the developmentalists, which included the UNFPA. They argued that development would eventually take the Third World through its own demographic transition to low rates of death and birth.

In the years that followed the developmentalists turned out to have most of the evidence on their side. This forced even the most raucous Malthusian pill-pushers to tone down their rhetoric and 'integrate' family planning into health and development programmes.

However, some Third World governments also started to shift their approach - often, ironically, towards a more Malthusian position. These nouveau-riches elites were getting worried about the increasing numbers of poor families camped outside their large houses. And some of the worst excesses during this period came from Third World governments, such as Sanjay Gandhi's notorious sterilization campaign in India in 1976.

Later still, both Malthusians and developmentalists softened their lines. The Malthusians now had their 'integrated' health programmes, albeit only thinly disguised family-planning campaigns. But the developmentalists, too, were having second thoughts. A massive 42-country World Fertility Survey, commissioned by UNFPA and USAID, demonstrated that half the women who wanted no more children had no access to contraception. So distribution of information and contraceptives was now accepted as a way of meeting this 'unmet need', alongside other development efforts.

But just as these two groups began moving closer together, other forces were gathering which threatened to blow the consensus wide apart once more.

The first new force was the women's movement (always prominent in the field of family planning, but now with more international influence). Now, much of what they were saying - particularly their insistence that women had a right to control their bodies and therefore a right to family planning - was welcomed by all sides of the population industry. But the feminists went further. They argued that the right to control their own bodies should include the right to abortion. This outraged the Catholic Church of course. But this was nothing new. What was new was the uproar this caused among the second new force on the population scene - the New Right.

The New Right - in the guise of the Reagan Administration in the US and, to a lesser extent, Thatcherism in the UK - had already attacked most of the conventional development wisdom of the Seventies. Aid was discredited, as was the whole idea of development planning. Third World governments should be stepping aside and letting market forces work their magic, they argued. Now they went to work on population too.

New Right population ideology has two distinct components: the economic and the moral. The high priest on the economic front is Professor Julian Simon of the University of Maryland. For him more people are not a problem: on the contrary, they are the 'ultimate resource'. Providing they are not restrained by government interference, newly-born humans offer a fresh source of ingenuity and can provide solutions to many more problems than they cause - by discovering new energy sources, for instance. The moral component of the

New Right's population ideology, on the other hand, is based upon the sanctity of family life and the rights of the foetus. It is resolutely opposed to abortion and would like to see women firmly back in the home.

In fact there is no logical connection between the moral and economic components - Simon himself is not against abortion. What ties them together is their adoption by the Reagan Administration, which uses Simon's economic thesis to give intellectual backbone to their moralistic assertions. But put together, they produced a potent brew which has caused an extraordinary about-face in US Government policy-~ at the 1984 World Population Conference in Mexico City, the US described population growth as merely a 'neutral phenomenon'. The real problem, they argued, was government interference in the efficient play of market forces.

But it was the moral part of the New Right's package that really put the cat among the pigeons. On grounds that they were funding programmes which included abortion, the US cut off its support to UNFPA. The International Planned Parenthood Federation - an association of local family planning organizations around the world - also lost its US funding because it would not promise to deny women the option of an abortion.

So now the ideological battlefield is littered with a number of often overlapping forces - Malthusians, feminists and developmentalists, as well as the moralists and economists of the New Right. And you are likely to find representatives of all camps within any given organization.

Now that you have an idea of what is going on, you could be forgiven for throwing up your hands in disgust and letting them all get on with it. The Third World poor, on the receiving end of programmes designed by one faction or the other, do not have this option.

Peter Stalker is a co-editor of the NI.

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