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There’s no economic advantage to a procreation race among nations

Thursday January 3 2019

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A video clip was widely circulated in Kenya a few weeks back. In the two-minute version that I watched, a prominent Kenyan entrepreneur urges Kenyan families to take procreation seriously, arguing that Kenyans ought to reject the ''fake'' call for family planning.

Among the more poignant statements is that ''China is great because of numbers. They have a population of more than one billion people''. Taken at face value, here was an undeniably successful businessman holding court on economic and social policy that would herald Kenya's prosperity.

The gist of the statements is that family planning, or birth control, is self-defeating because economic and political power is attained by global and continental population rank. By his demeanour and emphasis, the speaker was not being flippant and neither was he trying to simply entertain his audience.

This speaker’s primary argument was based on two propositions, the first one being that a large population creates opportunities for investments because every citizen would be a consumer and a producer. By this fact, Kenya could, through higher fertility, be creating bigger markets which in turn could result in national economic strength.

That speaker is not alone in making this straight line thinking that markets are the result of the collective demand by individuals. Therefore, the summation of these individual demands drives economic development at country level.


A second assumption was that every nationalist has an interest in economic domination of the world and that it is therefore the responsibility of the state to encourage high birth rates. Thus the failure to keep birth rates high would be to condemn Kenya to lower economic development in comparison to other countries with higher fertility and populations.

Research does not find direct links between economic and political development and population size per se. What exists is clearer evidence stating that overall economic development determines population because income levels and other welfare indices such as health affect fertility, family sizes and population growth rates. For the speaker whose clip is the subject of discussion here, it does not seem that ramping up marriage and child bearing is a sure tool for the economic and political gains as confidently asserted.

As a matter of fact, to cajole Kenyan mothers to go on an overdrive of conception, gestation and birth is irresponsible. And not only because it undermines autonomy of mothers but also because the state of public health infrastructure to support their health and young children is bad.

The speaker might not have intended harm, but to champion a race of child births just four months after many babies were found dead at the largest maternity hospital in Kenya is imprudent. To date, no clear and formal narrative has been put in public domain to explain this undignified treatment of Kenya’s youngest and their mothers but it is clear that these children were neglected and their mothers treated inhumanely.

No prudent mothers will yield to this pressure to bear children under circumstances where the safety of mother and baby is left to a ping pong game between the county government and the medical practitioners guild. It is cruel to ask for mothers to be victims in this morbid game of impunity as we chase glory based on a fallacy.

Knowing that in Kenya 36 in every 1,000 children die before their first birthday, of which 20 die within in the first few weeks, Jimmy Wanjigi should have been more circumspect while his audience should have been less amused. Adding to this loss is that five mothers die in every 1000 births in Kenya. Kenya’s national priority is not an Olympics of births against neighbours and the world. Our focus is on covering our burden of shame by saving these mothers and children now.


Economic success is not a preserve of large populations and history shows that few populous countries achieve high standards of living. Instead, high standards of living are determined by the policies that create economic freedom, irrespective of the size of the population.

Countries that lead in the Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) are also the most prosperous. These nations don’t have large populations or land size but have the open and competitive business environment and integrity of government. In the 2018 edition of the IEF, the only countries in the top 25 that have population that exceed Kenya’s are the United Kingdom and the United states, ranked 8th and 18th respectively.

Fancy theories such as a ''birth Olympics'' do not make a difference, except to condemn many more families to pain and suffering. It may not be too much to expect of entrepreneurs who pontificate on development to understand the real causes of wide prosperity for society, especially because bad policy choices hurt children and their mothers directly.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame