We can either manage fertility or it can sink us
Fertility is a sensitive issue and most of the analytic reports that discuss this issue, tend to simplify its complexity, focussing on population growth instead of its intricate dynamics with poverty.
It may seem a common-sense solution to reduce population growth to achieve improved prosperity but in Africa it is not that simple. We live in an environment where a very large part of the population still exists in the stone age, and a not insignificant number of people scrounge on the edges of over-crowded, under-developed urban squalor. Procreation is the norm and as such it is also entrenched in the social psyche. Convincing individuals originating from these communities that number of children equals level of poverty, is not that easy.
But there are analysts who look at population growth and its contribution to perpetuating the poverty cycle, in a rational way without losing sight of the immense gap between civilised societies in the developed world, and their counterparts in the third world. I received a report this week that distinguishes itself on this vital aspect.
A group in the United States that regularly sends me opinion pieces on food production, food demand and food security, provided me with a fresh analysis of the estimated food requirements of Africa by 2050 ,if we continue to grow unabated at our historical rate.
Significant are the relevant statistics they furnish to bring their point across. The cold sober fact is if every African woman continues to produce around 6 children in her lifetime (on average), we must start devising clever schemes of how we are going to feed a population of more than 2.5 billion people in 2050. I think the baseline argument is that it will be very difficult and unless we want to continue in poverty, strife, conflict and civil wars, we have to find the solutions ourselves to reduce population growth.
It is called Replacement Level Fertility and the report argues that many countries have reached this level or are on their way to achieve it, except for Africa.
Replacement Level Fertility is defined as the total fertility rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration. This rate is roughly 2.1 children per woman for most regions of the world. In Africa, the fertility rate is more than double this.
Fertility used to be a good thing in pre-history. The benefits of large tribes have been discussed in many academic as well as popular treatises looking at historical population dynamics. But we no longer live in the stone age and even Africa with its huge continent and almost limitless resources, has found that there are definite restrictions to the sustenance we can demand from the land.
It comes as no surprise that education is ranked at the top of the list of those factors that will make a dent in our propensity to breed like rabbits. In particular, educational opportunities for girls are singled out as the most important factor limiting population growth. “In general, the longer girls stay in school, the later they start bearing children, and the fewer children they ultimately have. In most countries with total fertility rates of 2.1 children per woman or fewer, between 80 to 100% of women of childbearing age have attained at least a lower secondary education level…..but Sub-Saharan Africa illustrates this relationship in reverse. The region has a low share of women with lower secondary education, but a large share of high birth rates.”
Listed next is access to reproductive health services and family planning. “Millions of women want to space and limit their births, but do not have adequate access to reproductive health services. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that 53% of women in Africa who wish to control their fertility lack access to birth control, compared with 21 to 22% in Asia and Latin America.”
Contradictory as it may sound, reducing infant and child mortality actually contributes to slower population growth as it forces parents to focus on sustenance and not on survival.
Then citing our neighbour, Botswana, the study makes its most interesting point. “In 1981, the average woman in Botswana gave birth to 6.1 children. By 2010, that rate had fallen to 2.8.” This major advance is ascribed to education, improved health, and reducing mortality rates.
In addition to the obvious benefits, the report says when populations stabilise, there is a significant reduction of environmental degradation, poverty and lack of food. It may not be obvious that the issues listed above have a direct impact on food security, but that is the ultimate outcome.