Columns 14.9.2018 08:30 am

Massive population is not a ‘great resource’

Picture: Facebook

Picture: Facebook

If the birth rates don’t drop in future, some African countries will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

I am one of five children, so I am in an invidious position when I write about population growth. That was quite normal at the time where I grew up, but I and my brothers and sisters have had a total of just 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 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,” Magufuli said. “I have travelled in Europe and seen the harmful effects of birth control.”

This is not really a problem in Tanzania, where the average woman has more than five children. The population has grown at a steady 3% 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 less than 20 years.

Yet Magufuli thinks women should throw away their contraceptives because 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. It’s now 45 million and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years.

The end-of century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop towards replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is about 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop – as they have not dropped in past decades – then 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 be as powerful as France. Five or ten 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 vote-winner. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and those who point out it is a problem that could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neocolonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is Ghana.

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

Appiah is the executive director of Ghana’s National Population Council. She has proposed that women should be restricted to having three children and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number.

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

Gwynne Dyer.

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