issue 176 - October 1987
This entire magazine is aimed at undermining the logic that says
'overpopulation is the Third World's worst problem. Therefore the
poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty. Therefore the
solution should always begin with a family planning programme'. Here we
challenge some of the major misconceptions arising from the overpopulation
In fact, population growth rates are slowing down everywhere in the world - even in Africa If you can imagine population growth as a rocket, then it passed the peak of its upward trajectory in 1970 and has begun to fall back down again. And, just like a spent rocket the plummet to earth is happening even faster than the upward rise. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), the world's population will stabilize at around ten billion in approximately 60 years from now. Of course ten billion is an enormous number of people, but it doesn't seem quite so alarming a figure when you realize that it's only twice the current population of the world. In some countries the numbers are even declining, In West Germany, for instance, there are predicted to be 15 per cent fewer people when the population finally stabilizes. In others the slowdown has only just begun. But even in Kenya - the country with one of the fastest population growth rates in the world - there will only be 120 million people by the time Kenyan population stabilizes. That's only twice the current UK population.
* live births per 1,000 population per year
Source: UNFPA 1984
In fact people who have never even heard of contraception and have never stepped inside a family planning clinic still plan their families In Mauritania. For instance, where only one per cent of women uses contraception, the average number of children born to a woman is only 6.25 and the number surviving is even fewer. In Greece, where contraception was not legalized until 1980, women bore an average of only 2.3 children in 1978. Yet each woman could, theoretically, have given birth to as many as 15 children spaced two years apart or 30 spaced a year apart So what are they doing to curtail this potentially crippling sequence of pregnancies? The answer lies in the time-honoured methods of withdrawal, abstinence, non-penetrative sex douches and abortion, plus a whole plethora of folk methods - herbal potions, amulets, spells - of unknown efficacy. There are at least six million abortions every year in India alone, five million of which are illegal In the Philippines, where the Catholic Church makes contraception unacceptable or difficult to obtain, marriage is delayed, on average, until the woman is aged 24.5. And the table shows the large numbers of women currently using what the World Fertility Survey dismissively (and inappropriately) calls 'inefficient' methods of contraception.
Source: World Fertility Survey
Every day more children die in the poor world than are born in the rich world. To parents whose present and future livelihoods depend on their children, those deaths are more than an emotional tragedy. They are a source of great uncertainty and insecurity that leads them to have more children than they would otherwise. In the Philippines, for example, couples who have lost a child have larger families than those whose babies all survived. In Egypt women who have lost a child want larger families than those who have not yet been bereaved. In fact UNICEF estimates that preventing seven million babies dying each year will lead to the prevention of between 12 and 20 million births by the end of the century. It is true that there is likely to be a time lag while parents gain confidence in their children's improved survival chances. But no country has yet managed to achieve a low birth rate while infant deaths rates remain high.
* Deaths per 1,000 live births
The NI challenges this myth, or a variant of it, almost every month. But for some reason it just refuses to go away. The problem is, as we point out over and over again, is not the resources themselves, but the way they are distributed. With apologies to those of you who've read this before, here we go again.
This depends on whether children are an asset or a liability. In the US, for instance, the cost of supporting a child to the age of 18 - excluding college fees - is over $100,000 and 50% of American women using contraception are doing so because they feel they can't afford another child. But in Bangladesh boys are already producing more than they consume by the age of 10 and have repaid their parent's investment in their upbringing by the time they are 15. In Java, Indonesia children are net income earners by the age of nine. This is one reason why sons are so important in some countries; girls usually leave home when they marry, so no longer contribute to their parents' income. In the Sahel a couple has to bear 10 children to be 95% certain of producing a son who will survive to the age of 38. When there are no pensions , bearing a son is absolutely vital for old-age security.
Source: East-West Population Institute
Proponents of this myth argue that countries with increasing per capita incomes, like Japan (21% increase from 1980 to 1986), have low population growth rates (0.7% a year), whereas those with declining incomes, like Nigeria (28% decrease from 1980 to 1986), have much higher population growth rates (3.0%). They therefore conclude that population growth causes poverty. This myth can be countered in it's own terms: first by pointing out that the impressive economic performance of countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, whose per capita incomes have grown by an average of 3.0% a year in the last few decades, took place alongside rapid growth; second by showing that Africa's ten richest countries have similar population growth rates to the continent's ten poorest countries. But the myth is also based on the assumption that people are consumers rather than producers of wealth. For instance: Japan fears that providing for its growing proportion of dependent old people (an increase in the over 65s from 9% in 1985 to 21.3% in 2025) will destroy the economic miracle of the last 40 years. But the real problem is employment opportunities, not absolute numbers. The retirement age in Japan is often as low as 50 years, so Japanese old people are turned from producers into consumers long before their time. Meanwhile France and Belgium are trying to encourage people to have more children in an effort to revitalize their flagging countries.
Source: World Bank Development Report, 1986
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