In 1994, in the run-up to the Cairo Conference on Population and Development, the U.S., National Academy of Science circulated a resolution openly calling for sustainable development — that is, slow or no economic growth — and global population control. The African Academy of Science (AAS), rightly suspecting that sub-Saharan Africa would be the chief target of such a campaign, not only refused to sign, it issued a strongly worded dissent: “For Africa, population remains an important resource for development, without which the continent’s natural resources will remain latent and unexploited.” Africans value families and children, the AAS went on, seeing “marriage as important both for companionship and for procreation.” Many of Africa’s leading scientists had had firsthand experience with Western-funded fertility reduction programs, and wanted nothing further to do with them.
Too Many People?
The population control movement was furious at this defection. Its leaders knew, with all the certainty of suicide bombers, that Africa already had too many people, not too few, as the AAS statement implied. The number of Africans had tripled over the past fifty years, and the continent was dangerously “overpopulated.” Why did Africans have the shortest life spans, the highest rate of disease, and more often went to bed hungry than other peoples? Because there were simply too many of them, they answered.
But it was not intuitively obvious to those outside the movement that Africa had too many people. After all, the continent is more than twice the size of the United States and has only in recent years achieved the same population density. Nor could the controllers offer a workable demographic definition of “overpopulation” to defend their position — for the simple reason that no such definition exists.
Instead, the controllers attempted to justify their programs by conjuring up images of poverty — low incomes, poor health, unemployment, malnutrition, overcrowded housing — all of which, they claimed would be solved, or at least greatly ameliorated, by reducing the African birthrate.
Make Room for the Hippos
The controllers were also offended by AAS’ talk of “exploiting” Africa’s abundant natural resources. This ran directly contrary to one of their cherished goals, namely, ensuring that as much of Africa remained as free of human footprints as possible. As one population control enthusiast put it to me at the time, “We have to make sure there is enough room for the elephants, the giraffes, and the hippos.”
He was not smiling. The controllers had been blown into Africa and Asia by the population bomb hysteria of the late sixties, arriving with deep pockets and a grim-faced determination to rescue healthy human populations from the “crisis” caused by their own fertility.
Once on the ground, the controllers behaved exactly like the overbearing colonial administrators who had departed a handful of years before. They set out to change longstanding norms governing marriage and family size, ignoring objections from local leaders that this constituted cultural imperialism. They virtually took over the ministries of health in a number of countries, and succeeded in skewing health care in many others in an anti-natal direction. The importance of their salvific mission trumped all other considerations.
The predictable result has been repeated epidemics, the resurgence of malaria, and now one of the great pandemics of all time. Some 50 million Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS, nearly all of whom will be dead in a few years. “If we had devoted the personnel and resources spent on family planning to building up the primary health care system,” commented an expert at an international HIV/AIDS conference in Nairobi, Kenya, a few years ago, “Perhaps we wouldn’t have an AIDS epidemic today.”
No Time for Vaccinations
Medical personnel who are busy performing sterilizations and distributing birth control pills cannot, at the same time, be administering vaccinations or giving lectures on basic hygiene. By undermining primary health care, population control has cost millions of lives.
The population controllers also work at cross purposes to the most important American foreign policy goal, that of promoting democracy in Africa and elsewhere. Encouraging governments to violate the rights of parents to decide for themselves the number of their children is a step towards dictatorship, not democracy. The rigorous family planning programs favored by the controllers are rarely popular, and need considerable government backing to succeed, Dictatorships, not surprisingly, are the controllers’ best friends when it comes to passing laws governing family size or setting and enforcing targets for such things as sterilizations. Moreover, like China, they have little compunction about using force if need be.
The use of coercion in family planning programs is not the exception, but the norm. The Population Research Institute has documented serious abuses in 41different countries. Not all government-sponsored family planning programs are as coercive as China’s, of course. But they are typically carried out by agents of the state, who in turn are driven by the need to fill quotas for sterilizations and targets for contraceptive “users.” To understand how oppressive and intrusive such programs are, imagine how you would feel if someone from the Department of Health and Human Services showed up on your doorstep bearing injectable contraceptives, or an order to report for sterilization.
Moreover, these programs typically involve the indiscriminate provision of powerful, steroid-based contraceptives to women without a prior medical examination, absent informed consent, and without even cursory follow-up care. The former Secretary of the Kenyan Medical Association, Stephen Karanja, reports that “Some of these contraceptives like Depo-Provera cause terrible side effects to the poor people in Kenya. Many are maimed for life.”
Falling African Fertility
African fertility is indeed falling — women whose mothers averaged seven or eight children are having four and five today. At the same time, the controllers have in many ways exacerbated the problems of disease and poverty that they came to cure.
But a still greater irony lurks behind their anti-natal efforts. By inhibiting Africa’s political development, by siphoning money away from health and education, and by contributing directly and indirectly to the spread of disease, they may have actually delayed Africa’s demographic transition. After all, development is the best “population control,” as the dying peoples of Europe, Russia, and Japan can testify.