The Corner

Malthusian Ghosts in Africa

Nowadays it has become easier to find the scapegoat for Africa’s ills: Africans. You read it everywhere; Africa is poor because it has too many people. As we mark World Population Day, an annual event observed on July 11 since 1987 to raise awareness about global-population issues, it’s important to highlight current population trends and lessons that can be learnt by developing countries, like the African nations. This year’s United Nations theme for the occasion is “Universal Access to Reproductive Health Services.” Don’t worry if the term is too long or complicated to understand; no one really understands it — they are sometimes known as “undefined” or “controversial” terms by diplomats and pundits within international policy-setting circles — for they divide nations.

The simplified myth goes like this: Africa is overpopulated and the only way to development is to bring its population growth down to “manageable levels.” A look at the U.N.’s statistics, however, is instructive: There are 170 people per square-kilometer in Western Europe versus 33 people per square-kilometer in Africa. The United Kingdom has 253 per square-kilometer while Kenya has only 69. Where is Africa’s overpopulation?

What’s even more startling is the fact that the backers of such paths to development are facing a population bomb at home. This bomb is neither Malthusian nor Ehrlichian, two authors who ignited the fear-mongering overpopulation theories that have proven wrong again and again. In his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted: “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Fortunately, these predictions never happened.

#more#The same tune about Africa was sung about Hong Kong in the 1950s when it was still poor and said to have a population beyond its “carrying capacity.” Today Hong Kong boasts a population of over 7 million people (6,460 people per square kilometer) with, according to 2010 World Bank  estimates, a per capita income of US$47,480 (the 9th highest in the world, if separated from mainland China). Its population has grown by six times since the 1950s when it was said to be a “dying” country as a result of overpopulation.

The issue with this thinking of the “sky is falling now or else” is twofold. The first is that it omits one key reality of human history: Humans survived for centuries because of their capacity to invent and adapt to new challenges. Secondly, it considers people, especially poor ones, a burden to society. To put it more bluntly, it views people as mouths that eat and not minds that think and innovate. With this flawed focus, we’ve somehow lost sight of what development is really about. It ought to be about basic human needs and creating environments and fair systems where people can thrive and make their lives better. But now the focus seems to be getting rid of people themselves.

All this has shifted attention away from more pressing issues for the poor, such as education, health care, clean water and electricity. Basic needs that governments must provide to their people for economic success. Only one capital has infinite returns on investment; that’s human capital. To achieve that end, deeper governance and leadership issues that make nations fail or succeed must be addressed.

Nothing can better explain these deeper issues than two jokes popular in Africa these days that capture both the current climate and what has gone wrong quite well.

The first regards foreign aid: “The animal Africans see most these days are White Elephants” — things given, or worse, imposed, that have no value or use.

The second is a conversation between an African and an Asian who became friends while attending an elite university in the West before becoming politicians in their respective countries. Nine years after their studies, the joke goes, the African politician visited his Asian counterpart and was shown a majestic house parked with two expensive cars and built on a superhighway. “How did you build this?” the African asks. “Oh look at that bridge, 10 percent only!” the Asian responds. A few months later, the Asian makes the trip to Africa and is warmly received by his African counterpart and shown around a three-story building with five expensive cars parked outside. “How did you build this?” the Asian asks. “Well, look there” — the Asian sees nothing more than a jungle — “100 percent!” the African candidly responds.

Those are the fundamental problems to deal with in Africa and other developing countries. They are the root causes of most issues and without fixing them, even if people have no kids at all, they will likely die poor. That’s what makes nations fail or succeed. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen aptly put it, in Development as Freedom, “in world history there has never been a case of mass starvation in an active democracy.”

In the meantime developed and emerging nations across the world, including Hong Kong, are grappling with declining populations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has nearly lost 6 million people as a result of population decline. Singapore’s government, worried about its below-replacement fertility rate, is offering new mothers monetary incentives of $3,000 for the first or second child and up to $4,500 for a third or more. The new policy is called “Three or More.” African countries ought to learn from these trends.

In developed countries, improvements in people’s lives through education and health-care services were followed by a trend or preference for smaller families. Not the other way around. In fact, economic booms require a large labor force to take off. Malthusian ghosts are haunting Africa for no reason.

— Obadias Ndaba is president of World Youth Alliance, an international organization with consultative status with the United Nations and European Union, among other institutions.

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