Pay parents not to have too many children
There is sufficient empirical evidence based on rigorous surveys to demonstrate the link between large families and poverty.
If this causal connection is so easy to find and so pervasive in all poverty research methodologies, why does one not see active campaigns to inform the poor about the benefits of smaller families.
It is stated government policy to be pro-poor. If this refers to positive approaches to increase the earnings of poor families, then one of the tools in the strategy mix, must be to advocate having less children.
Family size is a touchy subject. Often when I discuss this issue with the poorest of the poor and tell them that six children or more may be regarded as a blessing in the traditional sense, but in reality it is a burden, then I am confronted by this wall of ignorance. Broadly speaking, Namibia is not yet halfway through the urbanisation process which I believe is now generally accepted as a normal process. All communities in transition, somewhere along the development curve, find themselves to a lesser or a greater degree, participating in rural urban migration.
But in primitive societies where the majority of the members still eke out an existence based on subsistence agriculture, many children are seen as an investment in a livelihood, and later in the parents’ life, as a form of pension. That may have been so a hundred or even fifty years ago. It certainly is no longer an applicable norm in a modern world.
We need to be frank about procreation and we need to start voicing radical solutions if we ever hope to make a dent in poverty and unemployment. But bringing this message across is not without complications.
Say for instance, government would adopt a policy of planned parenthood as part of their pro-poor strategy, ultimately to get rid of poverty, who will tell prospective parents coming from a primitive background, that four children per family are more than enough? This message simply does not go down well. Whenever I bring this subject up, I am usually talking to people for whom it is already too late. Once a family has grown beyond four children, the parents realise they will never escape poverty, and they tend to become resigned to their fate. When one then tries the argument of preventing any further births, the typical response is: But it is our tradition. It is usually at this point that I throw my hands in the air and retort: Then stick with your stupid tradition and remain poor, and know that all your children will also remain poor. Explaining that poverty is a trap and that one can only escape it when resources outweigh demand, sometimes seems to be a futile exercise.
My own exasperation at the inability of getting across the message that large families can simply not be sustained in an urban environment, does not mean I must give up on it. I think it only means that small families must become a matter of policy. And the most powerful agent in this battle is the government.
The only problem with government interventions is that they are reactive. They are employed only when a situation has already reached crisis proportions. But it does not need to stay like that. Twenty years ago, AIDS was a major calamity, and a complete taboo to discuss openly. This attitude led to the demise of our people at such a rate that we were forced eventually to make AIDS talk an everyday thing. Now, although still faced by the reality of AIDS, at least we have managed the disease and its impact on society and on the economy. We can do the same with birth control.
A very radical solution is to create a financial incentive not to have children. And this must not happen in an indirect way like tax concessions or something similar, no it must be a direct and tangible benefit. Then, instead of trying out all sorts of gimmicks like a basic income grant, or subsidised service delivery to the poor, or even an old age pension, simply pay those parents who stick to the four-children family, a monthly stipend. The moment the wife becomes pregnant with number five, the stipend is gone.
I do not see this as a panacea to relieve us of poverty but I see it as a very strong message to provide an incentive to take birth control seriously. One must also realise that the benefits will take a full generation, i.e. about twenty years to start showing measurable results, but by that time we would have instilled a culture of planned parenthood, smaller families, and reputable education for everybody.
Think what radical change it will bring about in the lives of young couples. The only problem, what does one do about those for whom it is too late.? It is a sad reality, but they will probably die poor, and so will their horde of children.