On Ethiopia and birth rates


in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, The environment

Place de Portage atrium, Gatineau

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom November 15, 2007 at 1:56 pm

I thought the demographic transition model was based on people needing a lot of children in society’s with no social safety net.

If so, reduced poverty needs to come before reduced birth rates.

hilary November 15, 2007 at 4:59 pm

I noticed this today, thought you might be interested.

hilary November 15, 2007 at 5:00 pm

I can’t tell if my link worked above so here’s the plain old URL http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/ubcreports/2007/07nov01/fishing.html?src=ubcca

Milan November 15, 2007 at 5:50 pm

To make a link, it’s:

<a href="http://www.whateversite.com">Text of link</a>

Anon @ Wadh November 16, 2007 at 9:47 am

States like Saudi Arabia threw a fit about the Cairo Conference (International Conference on Population and Development).

When you want to keep your women living in oppressed ignorance, such high profile international meetings are not very popular.

Kerrie November 16, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Tom: I think you might be thinking of the wealth flows theory, which states that in a family structure where children bring income to their parents (through labour or adult earnings), there is an incentive to have many of them, and where children are a financial burden to their parents (because they don’t contribute to household income as children but still incur costs at least until they are well into adulthood), there is a disincentive to have more than one or two.

The demographic transition model is kind of based on parents needing a social safety net, but I think it is also based on high rates of infant mortality and short life expectancy, and (if i’m remembering correctly), it argues that as mortalities are reduced, the birthrate will remain high (causing a population boom) until it transitions to a low birth rate, low mortality demographic.

Tom November 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm


Does that mean that access to family planning options will lead to a reduced birth rate and/or diminished poverty?

What should our response be to the fact that an Ethiopian woman can expect to have seven children in her lifetime?

Kerrie November 17, 2007 at 3:10 am

It’s illustrative of the power dynamic in population debates that you would ask what “our” response should be to an Ethiopian woman’s birth rate. The question is, what will her response be, and how can Canadians facilitate or support her capability to respond?

I think that access to family planning options (options being the operative and somewhat problematic word) will both contribute to reducing the birth rate and diminishing poverty. But access to family planning options needs to come as one part of a broad range of improvements to the sexual autonomy of women around the world.

As for the wealth flows theory, in my opinion as education levels rise and children put more time into their education and less time providing economic support to their families, the incentive to have lots of kids should reverse. In turn, higher education levels, especially for girls and women, have been closely linked to having fewer babies and much healthier babies.

Milan November 17, 2007 at 12:07 pm

But access to family planning options needs to come as one part of a broad range of improvements to the sexual autonomy of women around the world.

How can access to family planning options be increased in situations where countries are hostile to them.

Also, where a certain big donor *cough* US *cough* is strangely keen to scupper international efforts at strengthening the reproductive rights of women.

Kerrie November 17, 2007 at 2:24 pm

Milan: good question. I certainly don’t have any easy answers. However I think that there are a lot of possibilities for improvement.

I think that donors need to shift their family planning ideas from a state-centric idea of family planning to a woman-centric idea based on increased choice on the woman’s part. While many governments are hostile to birth control for various reasons, there are very few countries out there that would object to “maternal health” projects. Opening pre-natal and natal clinics that *just happen* to provide reproductive health options on the side, without making any loud noise about it, is probably the best option. It would also uphold decision making at the individual level because less women would be facing a potentially deadly situation if they decided to have a baby.

On the state level, I think that G8 politicians could at least pretend that women’s reproductive health and sovereignty over their own bodies meant anything to interstate politics, and they could openly condemn countries where abortion is illegal in the same way they condemn countries where there is no vote or economic freedom. Similarly, open criticism must be made of countries with regressive rape laws. Marital rape is not a crime in many places in the world. Making it illegal often requires some shift in public perceptions of women’s rights. There is no reason why Canada or Britain or anyone else should wait for American leadership on this. It won’t come.

Finally, I think that G8 countries need to examine their own motivations. As North Americans, we consume several times the resources of the Bangladeshi and Chinese and Indian and African women we accuse of “overpopulating” the world. Famines in Ethiopia and South Asia are incorrectly attributed to population when war, hoarding, and infrastructure are far more likely culprits. And while there is a great deal of apparent concern over having too many little brown babies to feed, there are at the same time policy measures in many G8 countries to try to increase the birth rate of white women (or Japanese women in Japan, which also has its share of racial superiority/purity issues). We complain about immigrants and then we chide white feminists for refusing to breed and warn them of the impending population collapse. The dominant approach to population sustainability, environmental sustainability, and women’s rights has had a very poor handle on rational thinking in the past 40 years, and to get over that we should be examining our assumptions and our agendas.

. June 15, 2009 at 2:04 pm

In future climate scenarios generated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), higher population growth projections generally result in more GHG emissions.

The IPCC scenarios are grouped into four families (A1, A2, B1, and B2) and each makes different assumptions about economic growth, technological change, and population growth. Population assumptions range widely, from a low population projection of 7.1 billion to a high of 15 billion in 2100. Looking at the outputs of climate change models driven by these scenarios, higher population growth is associated with more GHG emissions (see Figure 1), with a few key exceptions. For example, the effects of highly carbon-intensive economic growth and technological change can be more substantial than population growth on future carbon emissions, at least for several decades.

. November 5, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Didn’t Learn Because You Grew Up in China)
Despite the one-child policy, millions of Chinese citizens don’t know how to have sex without getting pregnant.
By Michelle Tsai
Posted Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009, at 1:47 PM ET

BEIJING—The first time Hu Jing tried to have sex with her college boyfriend, there was a technical difficulty. “We knew we had to use a condom,” she said. “But we didn’t know how.”

Faced with this conundrum, Hu and her boyfriend went looking for answers—he from his more experienced friends, she from the university library, where she combed through Dream of the Red Chamber, a literary classic from the Qing Dynasty.

The following week, they reconvened for a second try. This time, they managed to roll on the condom but then … well, where was the penis supposed to go? It took another week of research before they succeeded in doing the deed.

After three decades of the one-child policy, you’d expect people here to know how to have sex without getting pregnant. And you’d be wrong. In July, Chinese health officials said that 13 million abortions are performed in registered medical institutions each year, largely because people lack sex education. The number of unwanted pregnancies is even higher when you take into account abortions at unregistered medical clinics, not to mention the 10 million abortion-inducing pills sold each year.

. September 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The main function of marriage in most traditional societies is to bring up children (romantic love rarely has much to do with it). Not surprisingly, changes in child-bearing have gone along with changes in marriage. The number of children the average East Asian woman can expect to have during her lifetime—the fertility rate—has fallen from 5.3 in the late 1960s to below 1.6 now, an enormous drop. But old-fashioned attitudes persist, and these require couples to start having children soon after marriage. In these circumstances, women choose to reduce child-bearing by delaying it—and that means delaying marriage, too.

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