The population scare has raised its ugly head again

Since the 1950s when Third World people began to over-breed their European counterparts, the latter got scared. Europeans feared among other things that competition for developing countries raw materials would lower their standard of living. To avert this threat they recommended that Third World countries practice birth control through contraception. Researchers, commentators and policy makers at state and non-state levels painted a very bleak picture that needed to be addressed on an urgent basis. Statements likening population growth to a bomb by Paul Ehrlich and nuclear war by Robert McNamara occupied center stage in the development discourse. “Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank in the 1970s, compared the threat of unmanageable population pressures with the danger of nuclear war [McNamara had been secretary of defense before joining the World Bank]”(The Economist 2006). International conferences including those at the UN were held, expert reports were produced and institutions such as the Population Council and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) were set up. Developing country governments were advised or forced to undertake urgent measures of birth control or they would not get international assistance. In the rush to prevent this ‘catastrophe’, inappropriate or wrong assumptions, omissions and commissions were made and the prevailing circumstances particularly in Africa that was decolonizing were not properly assessed much less understood.

While birth control should be supported in principle, the underlying assumptions, the methods used and the speed of implementation need to be recast, avoiding a one-size-fits -all solution. Let us look at a few illustrative cases.

The first wrong assumption was that women alone determine the number of children and how to space them and that they were ready for birth control practices. In Africa, by and large, the number of children is determined by husbands – whether women like it or not – who were not included in birth control counseling lessons that were confined to married women. After courses for women were completed they were given condoms to take to their husbands who became suspicions of the motives and the people (including many men) conducting these programs. This suspicion led to unanticipated and serious family misunderstandings and problems.

The second wrong assumption was that children were a liability, mere consumers and dependant on parents who would be unable to save for productive investment. In an agrarian economy, this assumption was wrong. In that setting more hands are needed from children to adults. Even five year old children can fetch firewood, draw water, tend to livestock or look after the young siblings when the mother is doing something else in the neighborhood. I recall being taught at a very young age how to cook and determine whether what was cooking was ready by the aroma and the color of food or when to add more water to what was being cooked. If children were to be compensated in money terms for what they do probably their income would exceed parents expenditure on them. In many cases polygamy was designed as a solution to labor shortages. The first wife would ask her husband to marry a second wife to help with domestic chores. The second wife would produce children and add to the family size.

While in Addis Ababa, I interviewed two women beggars with small children in different parts of the city. Through an interpreter I wanted to know why they continue to produce children when they did not have the means to support them. They both told me that tourists do not like to give money to adult beggars but do so when small children follow them asking for help. And the number of children one has the more money is collected at the end of the day!

Besides, reducing the number of children one produces does not automatically save resources for productive investment. Parents could choose to dress better, eat and live better than spend on productive projects.

The third error was in the timing of the introduction of birth control in Africa. It was done at the start of decolonization including in countries like Kenya which had just come out of a deadly guerrilla war that reduced the population in some communities. Independent governments were therefore suspicious of the motives including the fear that former colonizers wanted to reduce African population in order to re-colonize them. The churches were still in favor of producing to the natural limits and blocked birth control programs in their parishes. Active involvement of western population experts and advisers without a good grasp of the value of children in a rural and subsistence setting sent wrong messages as well.

The failure of birth control advocates to understand the role of ethnicity in African politics frustrated their work. In Africa politics is largely based on the tribe and ethnic group. The more people you have in your tribe the more representatives you will gain at local and national levels leading to more benefits for the people or the leaders. Therefore while citizens of a country may support birth control in principle, they would prefer that couples from another ethnic group implement it.

Because some 80 percent of the African population still resides in rural areas where the mortality rate is still high, an agrarian economy still needs more hands, the influence of culture and traditions on the size of the family and the number of boys is still strong, and dependence on children in old age by parents is still powerful, birth control will need to be implemented cautiously and gradually.

At the implementation level, there have been challenges with birth control. Contraception has experienced major setbacks caused in large part by adverse side effects. In many places birth control facilities are not run by professionals with sufficient experience and knowledge to be able to prevent or handle side effects, some of them very serious. These problems have included altering menstrual cycles, physical pain and reduction or loss of sexual interest, causing some birth control users to withdraw from the programs. To overcome these shortcomings, the following need to be done or improved upon:

1. Birth control facilities should be located within reasonable distances to users and should be staffed with qualified people who will prevent or treat side effects as soon as they surface.

2. Matters of birth control should, to the greatest extent possible, be left to local communities including their non-governmental and civil society organizations. Governments and donors should only provide assistance upon request and the one-size-fits-all solution should be avoided. Governments should avoid setting national or couple targets or targeting a particular group of people to avoid accusations of all sorts including the possibility of genocide.

3. A gradual approach is necessary so that communities understand the real benefits of having fewer children.

4. Dependency of women on their spouses should be addressed through economic and political empowerment so that they lessen or better still end dependence on their husbands for survival.

5. The future of birth control resides in the education of girls beyond primary education. This gives them a chance to stay in school longer and delay marriage, get a good diploma, a good job and income and be economically dependent of their spouses so that they can exercise their reproductive rights.

Finally, there is good news. Fertility has begun to decline in Africa albeit slowly. Birth control practitioners and advocates alike only need to be patient. Meanwhile consumer demand for African resources especially land and food by developed and emerging economy countries need to be recast so that a balance is struck between the needs of African consumers and those outside of continent.

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