Sub- Sa­ha­ran Africa birth rates not sus­tain­able

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work). GWYNNE DYER

I was one of five chil­dren. That was nor­mal at the time when I grew up, but my sib­lings and I have had a to­tal of only 10 chil­dren, so we’re down to re­place­ment level in this gen­er­a­tion. This is not hap­pen­ing in Tanzania.

“Women can now throw away their con­tra­cep­tives,” said Tanzania’s Pres­i­dent John Magu­fuli on Sun­day. Se­condary ed­u­ca­tion is now free in the East African coun­try, he pointed out, so chil­dren are no longer such a ma­jor ex­pense. Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more ba­bies are just lazy.

“They do not want to work hard to feed a large fam­ily, and that is why they opt for birth con­trol and end up with one or two chil­dren only,” Magu­fuli said. “I have trav­elled in Europe and else­where and have seen the harm­ful ef­fects of birth con­trol.”

The av­er­age woman in Tanzania has more than five chil­dren. The pop­u­la­tion has grown at three per cent an­nu­ally for decades, and since in­de­pen­dence in 1961 it has in­creased six­fold, from 10 mil­lion to 60 mil­lion. There is no sign of the birth rate drop­ping, and the coun­try is on course for 100 mil­lion in fewer than 20 years.

Yet Magu­fuli thinks the coun­try needs more people. He is not alone in this con­vic­tion. Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni of Uganda (which has about the same birth rate as Tanzania) once told me his coun­try could eas­ily feed 100 mil­lion people. He called the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion “a great re­source.”

Uganda’s pop­u­la­tion at in­de­pen­dence in 1962 was seven mil­lion people. It’s now 45 mil­lion, and will reach that 100 mil­lion tar­get in about 30 years. And there is no rea­son to be­lieve it will stop there. Uganda’s birth rate has not dropped in decades ei­ther.

The end-of-cen­tury pre­dic­tions for these coun­tries if birth rates grad­u­ally drop to­ward re­place­ment level, as they did in Asia and Latin Amer­ica in the past 50 years, is around 300 mil­lion each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in fu­ture decades, these two coun­tries alone will have a bil­lion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

And still Magu­fuli wants to get the birth rate up. He pre­sum­ably be­lieves a big­ger pop­u­la­tion makes a coun­try stronger, but if that were true Tanzania would al­ready be as pow­er­ful as France. Five or 10 times its cur­rent pop­u­la­tion will make it weaker, not stronger. It will also ruin the en­vi­ron­ment and leave a lot of people hun­gry.

Hardly any­body in Tanzania sees curb­ing pop­u­la­tion growth as a pri­or­ity, and it’s cer­tainly not a votewin­ner. In­deed, this is true for sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa as a whole, and those who point out it could ruin the con­ti­nent’s fu­ture are fre­quently ac­cused of neo-colo­nial or racist at­ti­tudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is on the other side of Africa, in Ghana.

Ghana’s pop­u­la­tion was five mil­lion at in­de­pen­dence in 1957; now it’s 30 mil­lion. But with great ef­fort, it has got its to­tal fer­til­ity down to four chil­dren per woman, and if the birth rate con­tin­ues to fall the prediction is for 73 mil­lion people at the end of the cen­tury. Leti­cia Ade­laide Ap­piah thinks this still is too many.

Ap­piah is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ghana’s Na­tional Pop­u­la­tion Coun­cil, and a very brave woman. She has pro­posed women be re­stricted to hav­ing three chil­dren, and de­nied ac­cess to free gov­ern­ment ser­vices if they ex­ceed that num­ber. It’s a long way short of China’s now-aban­doned one-child pol­icy, but at least it ad­dresses the prob­lem.

She has faced a storm of crit­i­cism for her pro­posal (al­most all of it from men), but she has stood her ground. There is lit­tle prospect Ghana will ac­tu­ally adopt such a pol­icy in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, but Africa needs more women like her. Ur­gently.

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