—David Werner

“Take care of the people’s problems, and the ‘population problem’ will take care of itself.”
—a popular slogan from the ’70s

The United Nations has declared 1994 the Year of Population. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) is planned for September 5-13, in Cairo, Egypt. Its preparations have fueled the fire of a long standing, politically charged debate:

The International Financial Institutions, most Northern governments, and much of the global power structure clearly intend to use the Global Conference as a forum to promote population control (which today they call “family planning”). They argue that the planet has reached—and in some areas exceeded—its “carrying capacity.” In other words, one of the primary reasons for today’s rapidly worsening crises in health, development, and environment is that there are too many people: because so many people have so many children. Therefore a prime strategy to overcome global hunger and achieve sustainable economic growth (which has become synonymous with “development”) must be to limit population growth. For their own good, parents who have the least means to support large families must be educated, empowered, or otherwise induced to “accept” family planning—i.e. fertility control. . . When stripped of all its sugar-coated rhetoric, the primary target of these high-powered policy makers is poor women in poor countries in the South.

Many non-government organizations (NGO’s) and popular movements— especially women’s groups—protest. Rather than focus on population or birth control, they see the basic issue as one of reproductive rights—especially for women. They consider that linking questions of population to development is a strategy of “blaming the victim.” It tends to place blame for growing poverty, hunger, and environmental demise on the poor and hungry rather than on those who consume far more than their share. And indeed, the average person in the USA and Europe consumes about 50 times as much of the world’s energy and other resources, and creates 50 times as much garbage and toxic waste, as does a poor person in the South.

According to the Reproductive Rights advocates, not the growing world population but rather today’s unfair global economic policies are the primary cause of the spiraling human and environmental crises on our planet. All women should have control over their own fertility. Well-informed choice of methods should be available to everyone. But fertility control should be the free decision of each couple or individual, never an obligation.[^1] They point out that pushing family planning as a development strategy—or making it a required central theme of health programs as a precondition to funding—has led to enormous abuse. Too often women (and sometimes men) have been subjected to “social marketing” and various pressure tactics to get them to accept or comply. Or they have been coerced to barter their reproductive functions for a pittance to feed their hungry children. In many countries, incentives and quota requirements for health workers have led to deception and even forced sterilizations.

In short, tremendous violations of human rights have been—and in many countries still are—committed in the name of population policy. Human rights activists cry out that these practices must not be further institutionalized. Increasingly, however, development aid is tied to strong “family planning” (read “population control”) components in program design.

Those who criticize top-down population policies argue that the best approach to combat poverty, world hunger, and ecological degradation is not through heavy-handed population policy but through more equitable socio-economic policies and fairer distribution of wealth and resources. They see the current strong focus on population as an attempt by those in positions of wealth and power to forestall global disaster without changing the status quo of an unjust social order.

Socioeconomic Factors, Not ‘Family Planning,’ as the Chief Determinant of Birth Rates

In the current debate over population policy, what both protagonists and critics have failed to emphasize strongly enough (although both refer to it in passing) is the strong link between fertility rates and socioeconomic security. There is a wealth of evidence which demonstrates that birth rates are much more substantially and sustainably reduced by increasing social equity than by pushing family planning.

Both current events and history bear this out. There is a wide range of examples that show how population growth rates decline as societies succeed in providing guarantees for meeting the basic needs of their whole populations. Socially disadvantaged parents tend to have many children as a way to provide the securities that society fails to provide. Many families, both rural and urban, who live marginally by day to day subsistence, depend on their children, who from an early age, contribute to family income. Children provide a source of support and care in times of parental unemployment, sickness, and old age.

In short, for a family that is despeately poor, to have many children is an economic necessity. The worse the family’s socioeconomic situation, the more children are needed. And where child mortality is high, a make-shift insurance plan (for those who have no other) is to have lots of children.

Alternatively, when societies begin to assure that the basic needs of the whole population are met, low income families can afford to have fewer children. Hence population growth rates begin to decline. This decline is obvious when we compare the population growth rates of Northern industrialized countries to many of the poor countries in the South. Those European countries that have adequate minimum wages, universal health care, and equitable social security for all have almost zero population growth (and many would have declining populations, except for the influx of immigrants and refugees).

There is a wide range of examples that show how population growth rates decline as societies succeed in providing guarantees for meeting the basic needs of their whole populations.

By contrast, the United States, for all its enormous wealth, also has colossal inequities: one of every four children lives in poverty, 22 million persons daily go hungry, and nearly 40 million have no health coverage. Not surprisingly, the USA is experiencing a higher birth rate than more equitable European countries, although the rate is lower than in many poor countries which it economically exploits.

Several years ago the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a study called Good Health at Low Cost.[^2] In this study social scientists investigated whether reports were true that certain poor countries (Costa Rica, Kerala State of India, Sri Lanka, and China) had achieved relatively high levels of health. The study confirmed that, indeed, each of these countries, despite quite low per capita income, hadachieved child survival and life expectancy statistics close to those of much richer “developed” countries. The reason, they found, was that these countries had followed a path of development based on equity rather than on lop-sided economic growth. Political commitment to equity included

  1. basic heath services for all, including rural areas,
  1. universal primary education, and

  2. assurance that all people have enough to eat.

It is of interest to note that several more recent studies, which look at population trends in different countries, point out that these same four countries—and certain other poor countries which have similarly low ‘income inequality’—have dramatically China, of reduced birth rates.[^3] course, in addition to residual policies of socioeconomic equity, has forcefully pushed its “One child, one family” population policy (with frightening results in terms of human rights violations, including widespread killing of baby girls by parents who want a boy). However, Kerala, Sri Lanka, and Costa Rica all have lower fertility rates than neighboring states, in spite of less aggressive family planning campaigns. In contrast, countries like Mexico and South Africa, with relatively high per capita incomes but great ‘income inequality’ have higher birth rates.[^4]

Cuba, both historically and when compared to neighboring countries, also validates the above observations. During the Batista dictatorship, where the gap between rich and poor was enormous and people had few social guarantees, Cuba had one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America. After the overthrow of Batista, the revolutionary government introduced one of the world’s most equitable systems, in terms of basic physical needs (if not always political rights). These in cluded: universal high quality health care and education, universal employment opportunity; adequate housing and sanitation for all; full care for the elderly, equal rights and opportunities for women, etc. Although Cuba made a variety of contraceptive methods available, for many years it had no policy to promote family planning. Yet during the first decade of the Revolution, the birth rate plummeted dramatically—far more than in those Latin American countries with strong family planning campaigns but few social guarantees for their impoverished masses.[^5]

John Ratcliffe, a population scientist formerly with the Berkeley School of Public Health, has done some interesting macro studies of population trends, comparing fluctuations in growth rates of different countries at different times and under varying socioeconomic and political systems. His studies confirm that fertility rates are determined much more by societal factors (relative equity and social guarantees) than by the resence or relative aggressiveness of family planning initiatives.

Those who are genuinely concerned about population growth (as distinct from those who harp on ‘population’ to divert attention from social injustice as the root cause of our global crises) need to take the above facts very seriously. What the hard facts imply is that:

Population growth cannot be substantially reduced through family planning programs alone. The only way to bring about substantial and sustainable reduction of fertility rates is through far-reaching social change. Such change entails more equitable systems, with policies to guarantee that the basic needs of all persons are met. Only under conditions of social justice can most people afford—and experience substantial advantages to having—few children.

Unfortunately, many of the world’s high level planners have little commitment to a sustainable development model based on fair sharing. They are blindly committed to the dominant development model with its so-called “free market” policies that place higher priority on economic growth of the few than on the well being of the many. They are unwilling to see how the globalization of the market economy—with its massive debt burdens, impoverishing structural adjustment policies, increasing net flow of wealth from poor persons and countries to rich, and authoritarian puppet governments armed by the global powers to keep such inequities in place—is the root cause of today’s global crises. Nor do they admit that these same injustices give rise to the apparent shortages and very real strain on resources for which they blame ‘overpopulation.’

Tragically, today’s global decision makers are too attached to their disproportionate wealth and privilege to see how the avid pursuit of economic growth contributes to the rapid population growth which they fear and wish to control.

It is therefore the job for those of us who are concerned about our children’s and the planet’s present wellbeing, to organize in struggle for a more healthy and sustainable world order. We must mobilize action from the bottom up, both locally and globally, so that all people’s basic needs and basic rights—including their reproductive rights—are met.

In preparation for the forthcoming global conference in September, we must help decision makers realize that if they want to reduce the population growth rate they must first look to social justice . . . and above all else, make sure all children get enough to eat.

Healthier people make (and demand) healthier decisions.