Concerns about overpopulation, or the ‘population explosion’ as it’s sometimes called, are widespread at the moment. The logic surrounding these concerns is understandable – it seems as if there aren’t enough resources to go around in developing countries, therefore sharing them out amongst more people is only going to make the problem worse.
From this perspective, it appears that overseas aid is fuelling the problem of overpopulation by ‘artificially’ keeping people alive whose environment can’t support them, who then go on to have even more children whose environment can’t support them, and so on.
However, aid spending is actually helping to reduce the number of children being born per family rather than increasing it.
It’s important to understand why people in some developing countries tend to have lots of children. Because there is little or no welfare or pension provision in these countries, people have to rely on their children to look after them if they become too sick or old to work. Because so many children die before they reach adulthood, these parents need to have lots of children to guarantee that enough of them will reach adulthood to be able to look after their parents. For them, having lots of children is both an economic burden and an economic necessity.
The way to encourage people living in such countries to have fewer children is not simply to tell them not to have as many babies. By improving child health and economic security, foreign aid is helping to remove the incentives to have so many children.
The UK went through a similar process in its history. During the 18th century around 4-6 children were born per woman but only 2 of these survived to adulthood. As healthcare and living standards improved, fewer children died and there was therefore less of an incentive for families to have lots of children, leading to the stable birth rate the UK has today. Present-day developing countries have been able to achieve the same results in a fraction of the time. For example, 7 children were born per woman in Bangladesh in 1970. By 2012 that figure had dropped to 2.2, the level required for a stable population.
By helping developing countries to move through the same process that the UK did in previous centuries, and which Bangladesh did between 1970 and 2012, foreign aid is not fuelling population growth but is actually helping to slow it down.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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