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Who says there are too many Africans?

Fiona Fox of the Catholic aid agency CAFOD questions the Western preoccupation with population control

As we approach the new millennium, fears about the planet's capacity to cope with the growing number of people have resurfaced. While the most recent United Nations report recorded a decline in the rate of population growth, the fact that the actual numbers continue to rise was enough to send sections of the press into a familiar frenzy about 'timebombs' and threats to the Earth's finite resources.

The equation is clear. More people and more consumption mean an increase in environ- mental degradation and poverty. To slow down environmental degradation and reduce world poverty, we must reduce overall consumption by reducing population growth. What could be more straightforward?

Yet the assumption that population growth will always cause environmental destruction is unproven. In some cases it does, in others the opposite is the case. For example, one study by Mortimore et al (1993) showed how decades of land erosion in the Machakos district of Kenya had been reversed by building terracing to retain moisture - a labour-intensive agricultural method made possible only by a fivefold increase in population over 60 years.

It is shocking that at the dawn of the new millennium, the population doomsters appear to rule out technological developments which would reduce environmental degradation and poverty. In the same week that the UN report was published, newspapers ran a story about the discovery of a source of frozen fuel under the seabed that could power the entire planet for centuries. Whatever you think of the ethics of genetic engineering in agriculture, the prospect of drought-resistant crops could open up amazing new possibilities for stricken African farmers.

It is also surprising that fears of the cata-strophic consequences of population growth have proved so durable in the face of compelling evidence that humanity is capable of adapting. From Malthus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, to modern-day Malthusians like the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, the assumption that population growth will outstrip food production has bred grim predictions of widespread famine. In fact, such famines as we see today, like that in Sudan this summer, are a product of war rather than ecological collapse. The evidence that mass starvation is avoidable and will probably be avoided gets more convincing, not less.

In other areas too there have been radical improvements in life in the developing world. Mortality rates of young children living in the third world are almost half what they were 50 years ago. The number of people with direct access to safe water has doubled in 50 years and life expectancy in the third world has increased from 41 to 62 in the same period. While nobody who has visited Africa would suggest that poverty has disappeared, there is evidence that, alongside a growing population, development is improving life for many.

That fears about population growth are a Western preoccupation became clear to me on my first visits to Africa. Apart from the fact that in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan I travelled through vast expanses of land without seeing a single human being, not one person I have met in Africa has complained about too many people. In fact most African women instantly offer me sympathy on discovering that I am still childless at 34. In a continent where few have the kind of lifestyle, career options and welfare arrangements that we have, family life and children assume an added importance.

In southern Sudan, way before the current famine, a doctor told me that the most common complaint from his female patients is infertility. He explained that few of these women were actually infertile, but they were desperate to get pregnant quickly before their husbands went off to war. Widows who survived the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 expressed great sadness that losing their husbands meant losing their chance of having more children. While the war in Sudan, the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea and the AIDS pandemic in Africa have killed countless children, Western commentators continue to talk about the need to reduce the number of children in the third world.

The only aid programmes guaranteed to be consistently fully funded are those which include an element of population control. This year USAID (the equivalent of Britain's Department for International Development) has given Kenya $13.5 million for family planning, compared to $4 million in humanitarian assistance. While AIDS victims can only dream about antibiotics and AZT, clinics in the most remote rural areas are stocked up with pills, coils and other contraceptives.

Anybody who has visited refugee camps in Africa will agree that one family forced to live in these conditions is one too many. But reports that the UN agencies are planning to supply these camps with manual vacuum aspiration equipment to allow abortions to be carried out on site are shocking. What exactly are we saying to these refugees? They have lost everything - their homes, their income and their dignity. Is access to abortion carried out by unqualified staff in unsanitary conditions really the best we can offer them?

Nor is there convincing evidence that the provision of family planning will on its own lead to a reduction in population growth. In Pakistan a $50 million family-planning programme introduced in the late 1980s had virtually no impact on the birth rate and resulted only in massive stockpiles of unused contraceptives.

The key to reducing family sizes is social and economic development. Smaller families are a product of urban and industrialised societies. Last month the media carried reports of a young professional couple in Britain who want to freeze an embryo to allow them to delay parenthood while pursuing their careers. Meanwhile in rural Africa, women are having large families to help increase their family income and provide a safety net in their old age.

The expansion of the population over the past 200 years has coincided with an historic improvement in the quality of life for those of us born in the rich North. Let's hope that the new millennium sees the poor countries of the world integrated into the international economy in a way that allows them to share in these benefits.

Fiona Fox is head of media relations at CAFOD, the official development agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999

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