Focus on population growth takes attention off basic needs like food

Friday December 7 2012

By DOROTHY KWEYU [email protected]

The recent State of the World Population 2012 report of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) dedicates a sizeable chunk to the concept of “the unmet need for family planning”.

Although the report affirms the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which recognised individuals’ right to determine the number and spacing of their children and infertile couples’ right to be assisted to have children, it is heavily tilted towards arresting population growth.

The report, therefore, resonates with the aspirations of Kenya’s Sessional Paper No 3 of 2012, which aims to control the growth of the country’s population to an average of 2.6 children from the current 4.6.

The Population Fund and Kenya’s National Council for Population and Development fear that rapid population growth is hindering development and must be arrested if Kenya is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and Vision 2030.

These fears run counter to equally persuasive views that a robust population growth is important for development.

As recently as August 11, the former Prime Minister of Singapore — one of the so-called “Asian Tigers” that we frequently quote for being at par with Kenya at independence, but which is now way ahead development-wise — cautioned Singaporeans about their current anti-child mindset.

Singaporeans needed to marry and have children if they did not want the country to fold up, Mr Lee Kuan Yew warned. In his annual National Day dinner speech to residents of Tanjong Pagar and Tiong Bahru, he said that Singaporeans were not reproducing enough, and the country needed migrants as a temporary solution.

But in the long run, mindsets must change, and the trend of declining birth rates needs to be reversed.

“If we go on like that, this place will fold up because there will be no original citizens to form the majority,” Mr Lee said.

In a recent public lecture at the Strathmore University, titled: “Towards an understanding of sub-Saharan African fertility transition with particular reference to Kenya”, Prof Seamus Grimes of the Institute for Business, Social Science and Public Policy at the National University of Ireland, Galway, poked holes in the UNFPA’s “unmet needs for family planning” concept.

He quoted the Population and Development Review of the Population Council, whose editor, Paul Demeny, once ridiculed the “unmet need” concept, asking: “Are we trying to suggest that two billion people in the past 30 years were added to the world’s population because their parents were too stupid to figure out what to do?”

Claiming the “unmet needs” theory is based on “flawed thinking” and “the most arrogant part of externally imposed development strategies”, Prof Grimes told his audience that, compared to “the need for food, water, medical care and fuel…, the need for contraception was very small in poor countries.”

Recent scholarship, he said, had criticised the “unmet need” theory, which reflects not just women who want contraception, but also “those women who require motivation to want what they are presumed to need, suggesting a usage consistent with a very broad or very paternalistic definition of ‘need’”.

Prof Grimes cited scholars who believe that a reduction in the focus of family planning programmes on population growth will allow more attention to be paid to other important areas such as child and maternal mortality, the timing of first births, and the prevention of sexually transmitted disease.

Acknowledging that the persistent relatively high levels of fertility and population growth in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are considered by many policymakers as a major obstacle towards economic progress on the continent, he, however, found policymakers’ preoccupation with high rates of population growth in the poorest regions of the world “ironic in a world which is increasingly characterised by rapidly diffusing below replacement fertility, declining population rates and ageing populations.”

Quoting from W.T.S. Gould’s paper, “Ideology and data analysis in African population policies”, Prof Grimes attributed predominantly negative interpretation of family size in poor countries to poor quality policy formulation based on questionable demographic analysis that has been influenced by ideological considerations.

Fear immigration

In a claim that is evident in xenophobic acts in the West, where anti-immigrant laws are evolving fast with strict curbs on the number of immigrants that can be allowed and visa fees that are constituently being adjusted upwards, Prof Grimes drew his audience’s attention to the West’s view that “population growth in the South is problematic and needs to be controlled, partly in fear of high rates of immigration from the South.”

Despite attempts to de-link family planning from the politically-incorrect population control, this has not happened. The July conference in London, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), where billions in pledges were made to meet the cost of modern contraceptives in developing countries, features prominently in UNFPA’s 2012 report.

The summit won promises of $4.6 billion (Sh386 billion) from donors and developing countries to provide modern contraception (coils, pills, injectables, implants and condoms) to an extra 120 million women by 2020.

Says Prof Grimes: “It is useful to consider this level of funding in the context of total development aid to Africa, which amounted to $47.9 billion in 2010.”

He noted that, within the social sector of aid, which constituted 39.1 per cent of the total in 2010, population and reproductive health, which made up 13 per cent of the social sector in 2009, was the only sector experiencing consistent growth since 1997.

Prof Grimes said that while aid for the social sector of health fell from almost 16 per cent in 2005 to less than 12 per cent in 2009, population programmes comprised 35.3 per cent of total aid from the US in 2010 compared to only 7.3 per cent on health.