Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Someone from the international aid and development industry has some explaining to do. In an analysis of financial data from the decade ending in 2010, The Economist lists the world’s most populous nation, and six African nations whose total fertility rate is among the highest in the world, as being among the ten fastest growing economies. By 2015, according to IMF data, this elite list will include the two most populous nations and seven from Africa.

How could this be, when we have been assured for years that high population and high fertility rates make economic growth impossible? Indeed, the entire international aid and development industry operates on this unquestioned premise. In a statement to the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning, billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates expressed the conventional wisdom of the aid industry: “Providing access to contraceptives is a cost-effective way to foster economic growth.” Echoing this sacrosanct position is Jeffrey Sachs, called “the world’s most influential economist” by The New York Times: “The second key to sustainable development is the stabilization of the global population.” Standing on the assumption that it is demographic declines that have primarily benefited the wealthy nations, Sachs concludes: “The reduction of fertility rates should be encouraged in the poorer countries as well.”

Of course, international aid expenditures follow this Malthusian logic. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and every other leading development- and aid-focused NGO together spend billions every year on fertility reduction as the primary solution to economic stasis and instability. Given the current data on economic growth, however, the assumption needs to be reexamined.

Few would be surprised to find that The Economist projects that the two largest nations in the world, China and India, will be outpacing the rest of the world in economic growth by 2015. The rest of the top five, however, may be more surprising: Ranking third in forecasted economic growth is Ethiopia, with a 2012 total fertility rate (TFR) of 4.6; fourth is Mozambique with a TFR of 5.3; and fifth is Tanzania with a TFR of 5.5. And while it is true that dramatic economic growth, especially in its earlier stages, does not necessarily equate with sustained improvement in standard of living, it is worth noting that Standard Bank predicts a boom in the “middle class” of several Sub-Saharan nations with high fertility rates, matching what is a well-established trend of upward mobility for many in China and India.

Given the growing body of economic data that suggest that demographic growth is not an obstacle for economic growth, a reexamination of the strategy of the international aid agency’s work in developing countries is urgently needed. Launched in July 2012, the largest single development campaign in history—the Gates Foundation-led Family Planning 2020—has eschewed all pretense of investment in hospitals, infrastructure, and education in Africa and Asia; opting instead for a fertility reduction campaign based entirely on the development and proliferation of long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs). Joining the Gates Foundation in this 4.6 billion dollar effort to “help” 120 million poor women is the British government, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, CARE International, and dozens more large NGOs who have long promoted fertility reduction as the gateway to progress for women, and thus, for nations.

But the emerging economic data suggest another alternative: many nations are thriving not despite, but in large part because of, their large or fast-growing populations. After all, people aren’t just “mouths to feed,” as they are often portrayed by the promoters of population control—they are buyers, producers, and innovators. In those countries that have made it a priority to develop both their own natural resources and the institutions that reward well-measured risk, investment, and innovation, we find dynamic economic growth—even with large or fast-growing populations.

Faced with the stubborn and problematic economic growth of nations with either large populations or high birth rates, the Gates Foundation and their Malthusian fellow travelers must be stumped. One expects them to point out—correctly—that some high-birth-rate African nations are benefitting from the investment of nations (mostly China), who are exploiting their national resources. Yet economists like Dambisa Moyo are less critical of China, pointing out that at least Chinese investors are hiring and training Africans, building good roads and cell towers, and offering an alternative to a culture of aid dependency.

Malthusians like Gates and Sachs will also point out that many of the world’s most unstable nations have high birth rates, and that those countries with low birth rates are developed and relatively stable. This is true, but radically incomplete as an argument, especially today: Don’t expect them to spend much time discussing the economic “growth” and political stability of Russia and the low fertility nations of the fracturing European Union.

The fact is that the relationship between population and economic growth is complicated: much more so than the birth control–first crowd seems eager to believe. They may mean well. These days, the wealthier nations are certainly having fewer children than poor nations, generally speaking. This “old normal,” however, is being inverted as the most dynamic economies appear to be those benefitting from a large population or high fertility, even as the developed world’s debt explodes in an effort to maintain a standard of living that is only apparently sustainable by borrowing from one’s children—children which many of these nations refuse to have.

African leaders will be forgiven for not taking Europe and the U.S. up on their offer to share in the decline of the developed world. To call the Malthusian premise into question, we don’t need to prove that dramatic economic growth equals an immediate high standard of living for all; we simply must point to the emerging data and ask why this particular dogma is so immune to contrary evidence.

When anomalies become the norm, Thomas Kuhn might say, a paradigm shift is upon us. The old model of development in which children are seen as a threat to economic progress is rapidly being eclipsed by the success of demographically young nations whose leadership seeks to reward investment rather than to compete for handouts—handouts which always come with population control strings attached—from wealthy nations. This focus on stability and investment will be the source of sustainable growth for Africa’s future, and for the children that they may be grateful they are still having. 

Stephen Phelan is the director of mission communications at Human Life International.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

More on: Population, Economics

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles