We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

A population policy and a development policy are one and the same thing

We are all ex-babies. But, with flush toilets, pasteurized milk, mosquito nets and cholera vaccines, more and more of us are surviving to have babies of our own. That is why the population has ‘exploded’. It’s not that we’ve suddenly started breeding like rabbits. It’s just that we’ve stopped dying like flies.

This success has created new problems. How can the world feed, house, educate and care for a population that doubles every 30 years when almost half its people are already hungry, illiterate and diseased?

It can’t. Killing off half the world’s babies before they are five years old was perhaps nature’s way of keeping the population under control. But we have to find a better way.

A few years ago, we thought we had found the way – in the shape of the coil, the loop and the pill. This seemed to be the ideal answer – safe, cheap and sure.

It was apparent that the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America have twice as many children as the people of Europe and North America. Perhaps it was just assumed that this was because Europeans and Americans naturally ‘knew better’. But hardly anybody paused to consider why this was so. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the poor needed the pill.

Family planning programmes were started in many developing countries and the advantages of small families were paraded before the populace with various colourful gimmicks like touring elephants that gave away condoms, free transistor radios for men who volunteered to be sterilized and compelling radio jingles like ‘When you have two that will do’.

Less strain

At first all went well. There were, and still are, thousands of people who wanted to have fewer children and who flocked thankfully to the family planning clinics to be fitted with coils or given a month’s supply of pills.

The advantages seemed obvious. People could at last decide for themselves how many children to have and when to have them.

It’s not that we’ve suddenly started breeding like rabbits. It’s just that we’ve stopped dying like flies.

And it was soon found that as well as slowing down population growth, family planning can really help people to improve their lives here and now. It can mean less strain on the family budget so that there is enough for all. And it can mean better health for both mothers and children; for it is a medical fact that too many babies too close together depletes and exhausts a woman’s health and can mean that the babies themselves suffer both physically and mentally.

A new picture

But soon the euphoria began to blow itself out. Many large-scale family planning programmes proved to be costly failures. In India, which has one of the largest, fastest-growing and poorest populations in the world, family planning failed to catch on. In nation after nation the story was the same. Millions of dollars and thousands of experts had been pumped into family planning programmes, but after some encouraging starts the overall birth rate had remained more or less constant and in some cases actually increased. In the last few years, a great deal of research has gone into finding out why. And the conclusions have radically changed the whole picture.

It had been assumed from the start that most poor people wanted smaller families and that therefore all one had to do was provide the means.

But the one common theme that has come out loud and clear from the intensive research of recent years is that MOST POOR PEOPLE WANT LARGE FAMILIES.

Peace of mind

That was a staggering conclusion. The easy answers suddenly disappeared. The pill itself was made impotent. For although contraceptives can enable people to have smaller families they cannot make people want smaller families.

The centre of study now began to shift. The big question now became ‘why do people want large families?’

The answer was not difficult to find once the focus of attention was switched from the problems of population to the problems of people.

Most poor people in the Third World don’t have unemployment pay, sickness benefits, or old-age pensions. And when jobs are scarce, illness common, and old age comes early, children are necessary for protection, security and peace of mind. As Milkah Singh, an Indian farmer, told one researcher: ‘Without our children God knows what would happen to me and their mother when we are too old to work and earn.’

The assumptions of the West

This simple dominant fact of Third World life had escaped the attention of people in the affluent West, who were largely behind the family planning programmes and who brought to them a Western perspective which included welfare states and social security.

Another equally important mistake was the assumption that children are a burden on the family budget which poor people could not afford. This again was an assumption based on the experience of affluent countries where children mean larger homes, a longer shopping list, school uniforms, but don’t start earning or contributing to the family income until they are 16 or more.

Children, from a very early age, make an important contribution to the family’s work and well-being

For most Third World families the opposite is the case. Children don’t cost much extra. They don’t mean moving to a larger house with more bedrooms, they don’t mean buying prams and carrycots and bicycles and electric train sets. But they do mean an extra pair of hands around the home and in the fields.

Seventy per cent of the people in the Third World live in the rural areas. And children, from a very early age, make an important contribution to the family’s work and well-being. They can bring water out to the fields (jobs which can take four hours or more a day). They can help with the cooking and sewing and cleaning and washing of pots and pans and clothes. When they are just a little older they help with tilling the land, sowing, fertilizing and harvesting the crops. And thousands of young men and women in the Third World are now emigrating to the nearest town or city in order to find paid employment and send money back to their families.

For millions of low-income families, the actual job of staying alive, of keeping house and home together, of growing enough food to eat and bringing enough water to drink, is a hard daily struggle which children make possible and even bearable.

The realization that most children in the Third World are not a liability but an asset shattered another fragile myth which had been a foundation stone of many family planning programmes.

Mortality and machismo

Social and religious customs often serve to elevate and reinforce economic needs, and in many Third World nations these pressures have created a corresponding cultural climate which sees fertility in a woman and machismo in a man as norms or virtues. People in the West have often smiled at these ‘quaint’ religious customs and social pressures, regarding them as evidence of ‘backwardness’ while at the same time exerting their own femininity through the social convention of cosmetics or their own machismo through faster cars.

To all these pressures must be added the pressure of child mortality. Even today, a poor Indian family must have 6.5 children to be 95% certain of having one surviving son.

Under such conditions, it is not so astonishing that the people of the Third World have not been stampeding to the local pharmacy.

‘We know best’

In sum, the whole of the ‘population problem’ has been plagued by the almost subconscious assumption that poor people have many children because they don’t know any better; that they would be happier and better off if they had fewer children; that ‘we’ know what’s best for ‘them’. It is a measure of the depth of previous condescension that the most important lesson of the last ten years has been that poor people are not stupid; that they make rational decisions over their own lives; and that large families are usually an intelligent response to economic circumstances.

When the social and economic circumstances of poverty change for the majority of the people in the Third World, when they no longer need many children for security in illness and old age, when their lives are not so difficult that many children are needed to make life tolerable, when fewer of their babies die in childhood, then the pill and the coil and the loop may be welcomed. Family planning may catch fire and the world’s population explosion may be damped down.

Statistical evidence

All this observed evidence is backed up by recent statistical and economic studies. It has been fully demonstrated in such works as William Rich’s ‘Smaller Families Through Economic and Social Progress’ and James Kocher’s ‘Rural Development Income Distribution and Fertility Decline’ that the birth rate only falls significantly when the standard of living rises significantly for the majority of the people. Kocher concludes: ‘I am aware of no evidence of sustained fertility decline – either spontaneous or induced through a family planning programme – ever having taken place in the absence of significant socio-economic development and modernization that considerably altered the lives of most of the population.’

For crude but convincing evidence of this, one need look no further than the question we ignored earlier – why is it that population is growing twice as fast in the poor world as in the rich world?

William Rich has collated the data on how various factors influence the birth rate in a given country and clearly demonstrated that income levels, healthcare, life expectancy, employment opportunities, education and the status of women, are all major factors in determining the rate of population growth.

So the problem is not only population but poverty; and the solution is not only contraceptives but development. That much, at least, is now clear. And as the emphasis has switched from straightforward population control to the broader question of development, new light has been thrown on the nature of ‘development’ itself.

Striking evidence

More and more in recent years it has been said that development cannot be measured in terms of GNP and economic growth rates. The study of the relationship between development and population growth has given massive weight to that argument. As Rich concludes: ‘There is, however, striking new evidence that in an increasing number of poor countries… birth rates have dropped sharply despite relatively low per capita income and despite the absence or relative newness of family planning programmes. The examination of these cases… reveals a common factor. The countries in which this has happened are those in which the broadest spectrum of the population has shared in the economic and social benefits of significant national progress to a far greater degree than in most poor countries… Family planning programmes generally have been much more successful in those countries where increases in output of goods and social services have been distributed in such a way that they improve the way of life for a substantial majority of the population rather than just for a small minority.’

If there is one set of statistics that can summarize this complex but vitally important conclusion it is the comparison of the economies of five countries (the Philippines, Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil and South Korea) published by the Overseas Development Council in 1973.

A key weapon

Charts may be boring, but these statistics must now be regarded as a vital element in any discussion of either population or development. For they demonstrate that increasing equality of income distribution and access to social services is the major factor both in promoting development and in reducing the birth rate. A development policy and a population policy are one and the same thing, and the key to both is more equal distribution of income.

In simple economic terms, this would increase overall demand and stimulate the economy – and, just as important, it creates demand for labour-intensive ‘home grown’ products, so creating employment and making major import savings.

And in equally simple population terms, more equal distribution of income helps to create the necessary social and economic conditions in which, for the majority of the people, the need for large families is reduced and the incentive toward family planning is increased.

In short, the great lesson of all the recent studies on the population issue is that more equal income distribution and the development process which it stimulates is not only desirable in itself in order to end the poverty which afflicts half the world now; it is also the only way of significantly reducing the world’s population growth and preventing even more poverty in the world tomorrow. The wheel has come full circle, and the message of World Population Year must now be read as ‘look after the people and the population will look after itself’.

New Internationalist issue 015 magazine cover This article is from the May 1974 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop