This week’s issue of The Economist includes a briefing on Ethiopia. In many ways, it reflects the ideas I am reading in Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.. A bad neighbourhood, terrible governance, ethnic conflict, persistent poverty and poor quality of life indicators persist despite western aid and loans from China. It seems probable that Ethiopia is caught in one or more of the poverty ‘traps’ that Jeffrey Sachs, Collier, and others have written about.
What struck me most about the article, however, was the demographics. In order to keep unemployment constant, Ethiopia needs to generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs a year. This is because the average woman in Ethiopia will have seven children in the course of her life. On the basis of such growth, the population could rise from about 75 million now to over 140 million by 2050. While it is possible that such a spectacular rate of population growth is the product of free and voluntary choices, it seems more plausible that it reflects a lack of personal control over reproduction: especially on the part of women. It is both ethical and prudent to redress this balance in favour of women having more control of their reproductive lives.
Statistics suggest that such control is less common in poorer places. This scatter plot shows the relationship between GDP per capita and total fertility rate in 108 countries. The replacement rate of about 2.1 births per woman corresponds to a mean GDP per capita of about $10,000 (though countries with a wide range of incomes can be found with similar TFRs). This data doesn’t necessarily show anything causal. It neither confirms or denies that poverty causes high birth rates or, conversely, that high birth rates cause poverty. Nonetheless, it is suggestive of the fact that women have less control over reproduction in poorer places.
A sustainable world is probably one with a birth rate below the natural rate of replenishment. This is not true indefinitely, but only until the combination of total human population and total human impact upon natural systems can be indefinitely sustained. While people obviously should not be forced to reduce their fecundity by governments, their right to choose whether or not to have children should be upheld and made meaningful through policies such as the legality and availability of contraception. In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development defined sexual and reproductive health as:
A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and…not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulation of fertility which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.
Sexual politics have always been a terribly contentious area, but that doesn’t mean reasonable people should not be agitating for better recognition and implementation of sexual rights. The United Nations Population Fund has a good website linking to more information on reproductive rights.