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Column: Population growth an obstacle to development...

…But let’s not fall back on reprehensible arguments that disease and food crises are “natural” methods of curbing it, writes Concern Worldwide’s Overseas Director.

Paul O'Brien

INCREASINGLY, WHEN WE look at the value of aid and development, arguments are put forward that population growth must be addressed as central to the process of poverty reduction. A small minority of these arguments have taken the reprehensible view that famine, cyclical food crises and disease are necessary and natural methods of curbing population growth in the developing world. I believe it is a valid assumption that population growth can be viewed as an obstacle to development but the causes (and hence the attribution of ‘blame’) are complex and varied.

Too often neglected in the controversy surrounding fertility rates is an examination of the causes behind the acceleration in very specific regions of the world, and precisely in the countries plagued by poverty. Despite a steady decline in fertility rates across the globe over the last 20 years, developing countries are absorbing an additional 80 million people every year and the strains are growing evident.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is estimated that the population will grow from 60 million people to 120 million over the next thirty years. In Afghanistan, it is expected that the population will double from 30 to 60 million during the same period. It is interesting to compare this with the situation in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malawi where sound economic progress is being closely matched by a gradual decline in fertility rates.

The causes of high fertility rates are complex. In the least developed countries, including almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, high child mortality rates, the need for children to work among the poor, the lack of access to family planning services and the absence of basic education are all stimulating that growth.

“Absence of social protection or pensions”

It’s no accident that the countries with the highest rates of child deaths are also among those with the highest population growth, because, put bluntly poor people have more children to ensure that some will survive to serve the function of carers in their parents old age. In the absence of social protection or pensions, such a motivation is understandable.

Child survival programmes are concerned with protecting the basic health and nutrition of children so that they are prevented from falling foul of hunger and disease. These programmes are important because they inherently negate the family’s need for more children. Since 1992, Concern has worked to improve child survival rates by working to improve basic health services, provide adequate nutrition to families and immunize children against disease.

Interventions during the 1,000 days between a mother’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday are considered the “window of opportunity” in this context. The lack of proper nutrition and care during this period can irreversibly impede a child’s cognitive and physical development, denying them the ability to live prosperous lives.

A second factor driving population growth is the need among the poor for children to work in order to contribute to the family’s earnings. In Ethiopia, I met with parents who had taken their children out of school because of the literal need for extra hands. Until communities are supported out of extreme poverty, poor people will continue to compensate for a lack of income by having large families, and children will continue to be measured in terms of their ability to contribute income.

In order to make informed decisions, access to basic family planning services is vital, though often lacking in the remote, rural areas in which many of the world’s poor live. Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment so that the poorest can take control of their family’s future.

In its health programmes, Concern promotes child spacing techniques that emphasize adequate time between pregnancies to protect a mother’s health and the health of future children. Our emphasis is on information, education and behaviour change communication that protects the health of the entire family and prevents the transmission of disease.

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“Education is paramount”

Paramount in curbing population growth is education, especially for girls and women. Research has demonstrated that for every three years of schooling a girl receives, she will have one less child, not to mention the associated benefits in skills, equality, confidence and later marriage age.

Many fragile states across the developing world struggle to provide basic education for girls – both in terms of the availability of educational infrastructure and attitudes to girls’ enrolment. Concern works with governments, education providers, Parent Teacher Associations and communities to make schooling safe, affordable and accessible for children.

In Burundi, we encourage mothers in the community to join school committees where they can see first-hand the benefits of education for girls, with a view to increasing enrolment. In Sierra Leone, the number of female teachers on our professional distance-learning course increased by 50 per cent in one year alone and in Rwanda, more girls enrol and stay longer in school as the physical infrastructure is improved.

When we see high birth rates in poor countries, there are some who would in a sense, ‘blame the victim’ and wonder at the irresponsibility of the decision to bring more children into a world of poverty. What this view does not take into account is the very lack of choice facing many of these families who are living in dire circumstances.

Birth rates have steadily declined across the industrialised world over the last 20 years in the presence of education, family planning and welfare systems. Through the provision and improvement of the same range of options, opportunities and chances of survival, families can be empowered to make informed decisions. Consequently, programmes that prevent the widespread deaths of young children, reduce poverty, enable voluntary family planning and support education are at the coalface of curbing fertility rates among the world’s fastest growing populations – the world’s poorest people.

Today is World Population Day. Paul O’Brien is Concern Worldwide‘s Overseas Director.

About the author:

Paul O'Brien

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