LM Archives
  5:51 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Six billion people? three cheers

Every issue from human rights to reproductive health has been twisted into an argument for controlling population. But the only place where there are too many people is in the population control lobby, says Frank Furedi

In case you do not know, 12 October 1999 is the 'Day of Six Billion', which is supposed to mark the moment when the Earth's total population breaks through the 6 000 000 000 barrier. The Day of Six Billion is the invention of a well-funded coalition of Malthusian organisations, as part of a public relations campaign designed to raise anxiety about population growth.

Some of the campaign material is explicitly alarmist in tone. Zero Population Growth, one of the organisations supporting this crusade, has sought to popularise the term 'Y6B', to build on apprehensions about 'Y2K', the millennium bug. Zero Population Growth claims that demographic growth constitutes a 'much bigger and more threatening problem than this computer glitch'. A more sober version of demographic alarmism is promoted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UNFPA report The State of World Population 1999 provides the kind of balanced account that we have come to expect from the population control lobby. It contains one line hinting that reaching six billion may have some positive aspects, before spending 76 pages dwelling on its negative ones.

Judging by the tone of the UNFPA report, when UN secretary general Kofi Annan officially announces that world population has reached six billion, it will sound like a health warning. Yet one might have thought that, instead of providing an occasion for grieving, this would be a day of joyous celebration.

Whatever the problems facing humanity, demographic trends are testimony to human creativity and achievement. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the world was around 1.5 billion. By 1960 it had doubled to three billion, and during the past 40 years it has doubled again to six billion. This population growth was made possible by important advances in technology, wealth creation and public health. The wider availability of basic sanitation, clean drinking water and modern healthcare has stimulated a revolution in life expectancy. As the UNFPA report notes, since 1950 the global death rate has been cut in half, from about 20 to fewer than 10 deaths per year per thousand people. At the same time, average global life expectancy has risen from 46 to 66 years. Even the poorest regions of the world have benefited from this revolution.

The population lobby, however, regards all of these people as a burden rather than as a source of creativity. Ever since Thomas Malthus 200 years ago, leading advocates of population control have claimed that the Earth could not sustain the numbers that inhabit it. Time and again, their apocalyptic predictions have proved to be without foundation. Even the UNFPA report is forced to concede this point. 'Human ingenuity and continued improvements in agricultural technology', it notes, 'have thus far ensured that global food supplies have grown at least as fast as population'. This grudging acceptance of the weakness of the Malthusian case underestimates the phenomenal advances that have been made in food production. Modern agricultural technology and fish farming mean that, today, it should be far easier to feed the world's expanded population than it was to feed far fewer people 100 or 200 years ago.

So why is the UNFPA making so much fuss about the Day of Six Billion? There is no obvious link between population growth and poverty, as even the expert advocates of population control are now forced to admit. To be sure, the popular media still associates population growth with the problems of economic development, famine and food shortage. However, specialist studies are far more circumspect.

The UNFPA report acknowledges that 'rapid populations growth' is 'only one among many concerns'. Yet it then proceeds to link the six billion figure to every conceivable socioeconomic problem. Poverty, malnutrition, ill-health, gender discrimination, lack of health and educational facilities, AIDS, resource depletion and environmental pollution are all presented as problems that can only be solved through population control. The UNFPA report concedes that the annual rate of population growth has actually slowed over recent decades, from 2.4 to 1.8 percent, and that it is likely to fall further. But this sober assessment of demographic trends is quickly forgotten, in favour of the dogma that everything is certain to get worse unless governments implement stricter policies of population control.

Organisations like the UNFPA insist upon the need for more population control, even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. This suggests that they are motivated by something other than concern for the welfare of people in the developing world. There appears to be a predisposition among these organisations to control population, regardless of the real circumstances. Over the years, the population control lobby has often shifted its ground, in search of any argument that will suit its purposes. The one constant has been the demand for fewer people on Earth, constantly repackaged to make it as palatable as possible.

The traditional argument of the population lobby, for example, was that controlling numbers was essential to economic development. For some time now, however, the population lobby has felt uncomfortable with linking its cause to that of development. Indeed, many of the leading figures in the population lobby - such as Lester Brown and Virginia Abernethy - are bitterly hostile to the idea of economic development. Today, professionals involved in population programmes are far more likely to justify their action on the grounds that it will improve women's health or protect the environment, than because it contributes to economic development. Thus much of the UNFPA report is devoted to what the UNFPA calls reproductive health, reproductive rights and gender equality. An exploration of the old economic case for population policies is conspicuous by its absence.

Not only does the Malthusian lobby now feel uncomfortable about adopting a pro-development perspective; in these more sensitive times it even feels defensive about promoting its policies in the language of population control. When Kofi Annan announced the countdown to the Day of Six Billion, he claimed that 'population is not only about numbers' but 'about human beings, about individuals'. Having just focused public anxiety around the figure of six billion, it is difficult to conclude that this campaign is about anything other than numbers. Nice phrases about 'human beings' serve as little more than a public relations device, to distract attention from the campaign's objective of reducing the number of human beings born on this planet.

It appears that a failure of nerve has forced the population crusaders to repackage their policies. The dominant tendency today is to integrate population policies into other, more neutral programmes such as healthcare, education and the empowerment of women.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the population lobby is manipulating issues for its own Malthusian objectives. Many of these issues - educating women, gender equality and reproductive health - are worthy objectives. But such objectives should be supported because they are important in and of themselves, and not because of their effects on demography. For example, maternal mortality has been singled out by advocates of population policies as a central focus for what they call reproductive healthcare. The figures are indeed horrific - 580 000 global deaths per year are linked to pregnancy and childbirth. But if maternal mortality rather than population control is the fundamental concern, then why is it linked to family planning rather than a maternity hospital building programme?

The discussion of the reproductive rights of women in the developing world is a prime example of how the case for population control is presented today. Of course, many supporters of reproductive rights are genuinely hostile to overt population programmes, and see their own approach as fundamentally different. They uphold the inviolate right of women freely to determine their fertility. They claim that a woman has an 'absolute right to bodily integrity and to decide herself on matters of sexuality and childbearing with no interference from her partner, family, healthcare professionals, religious groups, the state, or any other actor'. Unfortunately, this admirable commitment to the inviolate right of each woman freely to determine her fertility is rarely upheld consistently. Experience has shown that the social and cultural values of reproductive health activists often lead them to disregard the rights of women to make choices about their fertility.

For instance, according to one study, 'internationally, the practice of many couples aborting female fetuses in order to give birth to more sons has made it difficult for many feminists to absolutely support the individual's reproductive autonomy'. So, although reproductive rights feminists are 'theoretically opposed to any form of coercion', they have worked hard to include in the Cairo Conference Programme of Action on population a 'call for state intervention to stop such prenatal sex selection' (see D Hodgson and S Watkins, 'Feminists and neo-Malthusians: past and present alliances', Population and Development Review, vol 23, no 3, 1997, p507). If coercing women is acceptable over this fertility issue, it becomes unclear why it should be considered unethical in relation to other matters.

Many reproductive health activists demonstrate a selective approach towards the right of women to make decisions about their fertility. Their general advocacy of choice, reproductive health and maternal health rights in the developing world sounds good. But in practice they tend to endorse only those choices which will help to reduce population - such as birth control and smaller families. Those who choose to have more children inevitably find that their maternity rights are given far less respect.

Activists promoting reproductive health policies in Africa and Asia have become increasingly intolerant of what they see as unacceptable cultural obstacles getting in their way. A recent publication jointly published by the Guardian and Marie Stopes International reflects the authoritarian instincts of the reproductive health lobby. One of the authors, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, demands more international intervention to force developing societies to implement 'maternal health rights' whether they like it or not. 'Donor agencies need to use human rights instruments more vigorously', writes Alibhai-Brown. She advocates overcoming local resistance through a policy of social engineering: 'a better balance is needed between respecting cultural values which can be part of the solution and breaking down cultural values which are central to the problem.' ('Earth mothers', Birth Matters: a special supplement on reproductive health in the developing world) Cloaked in the language of human rights, this approach is driven by another right - the right of enlightened people to break down the cultures of which they disapprove.

Agencies involved in reproductive health initiatives often claim that they are merely gathering information and raising awareness, so that people - especially women - in the developing world can make informed choices. In fact these initiatives almost always involve influencing and shaping behaviour - and always in the same direction. Carol Riedman's study of fertility surveys in Africa has shown that they systematically promoted moral lessons designed to uphold the superiority of the smaller Western nuclear family, and to influence the reproductive behaviour of the respondents. According to Riedman, any subsequent changes in reproductive behaviour 'are not indications simply of cultural diffusion but the results of core-controlled cultural imposition' (see C Riedman, Science that Colonises: a critique of fertility studies in Africa, 1993).

Anybody familiar with how relations between an international agency and a small rural community work will quickly grasp the enormous pressure to conform that reproductive health initiatives can exert on the local people. Since population programmes are designed to reduce fertility, their aim is not to provide free choice but to influence people towards a particular outcome. A village where people 'freely' decided to increase their rate of fertility would not be considered a success by those running a population project. The pressure is in one direction - and the line between pressure and coercion is blurred.

The unequal relationship between the international population lobby and its target audience in the villages of Africa and Asia was vividly brought home to me while listening to a television news broadcast in Zambia one night in June 1995, about a group of Angolan refugees living in the Mayeba refugee camp in the North Western Province of Zambia. Assuming a tone of incredulity, the newscaster reported that the leaders of the refugees had rejected a population programme designed to curb their numbers. They maintained that many of their people had lost their lives in recent years, and that their concern was to replenish their numbers rather then to curb them. The news item concluded on an ominous note: 'it is reported that in Mayeba, family planning advice is ignored!' The tone of the report invited moral condemnation, suggesting that anybody who ignored the well-meaning expert advice of population campaigners were accomplices in their own downfall. Here was a moral lesson about a misguided community broadcast to the rest of Zambia. It provided a striking illustration of how the 'rights' and 'choices' of ordinary people are represented in the media.

Since the International Conference on Population and Development held at Cairo in September 1994, the Malthusian message has been framed in the language of human rights. The UNFPA's report on the conference noted that population stabilisation 'can be achieved only by taking individual people's perspectives into account'. It also accepted 'the basic human right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children'. However, almost the entire report was not so much about accepting 'people's perspectives' as about trying to change them. The authors appeared unaware of the contradiction between accepting people's rights to reproduce according to their preference, and lecturing them about 'responsible' behaviour.

International agencies which set out to study fertility practices in the developing world do not take the views of their subjects seriously. If their investigation reveals a general preference for large families, they have no hesitation in assuming responsibility for changing people's attitudes. Studies of 'unmet need' for contraception are quite open about the fact that their aim is to make people aware of this need, whether they like it or not. The current UNFPA report proposes not only the provision of family planning services, but also calls for campaigns designed to alter attitudes on the issue. Throughout the report, the UNFPA stresses the need to educate this or that group of people to change their attitude towards sex and family size. The UNFPA euphemistically designates its propaganda campaign as 'helping women and men to realise their family size desires'. What the UNFPA really means is that it will 'help' people to realise what it thinks is the family size they should desire.

For family planning professionals, the cultural norms and values of target societies are obstacles that need to be overcome. Central importance is attached to encouraging women to adopt lifestyles and identities which are at variance with the prevailing culture of their societies. The far-reaching implications of this plan for social engineering in developing societies are rarely spelled out. The artificial attempt to change the way people live and see themselves through external pressure inevitably undermines the moral foundation of the target society. The proponents of the new morality never ask whether societies have the capacity to absorb the effects of such changes. For all their talk of rights, the right of people to live according to the customs and practices that they have evolved appears to be one right which population activists can casually reject.

As somebody who is committed to the right of women to make choices about all aspects of their reproductive life, I find the 'Y6B' approach to choice dishonest. Women ought to have access to safe contraception and abortion because this right is essential for the exercise of their individual independence. But their rights should not be manipulated by others as a tool of demographic control.

The population lobby has successfully piggy-backed its concerns on to issues of reproductive health. It soon becomes evident, however, that the population lobby's commitment to choice has little to do with the right of women to make choices about how they wish to regulate their fertility. For the UNFPA, choice means allowing the population lobby to make 'enlightened' decisions on behalf of women in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As long as women go along with the imperative of population control, they are free to choose. Otherwise they can expect to get 'empowered' by anti-natalist crusaders who have the UN's sanction to play God over the most intimate aspects of people's lives.

Frank Furedi is the author of Population and Development: a critical introduction (published by Polity Press), available to buy from LM.
Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

To discuss the ideas and issues raised in this article, go to:

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk