Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Economist is Stingy with Praise for Family Planning Accomplishments

By Marian Starkey, Director of Communications

The print edition of The Economist this week focuses on fertility and population. The lead story, "Falling Fertility" makes important connections between rapid population growth and poverty and the inverse relationship between population stabilization and economic growth. I was reading through the story, pleased with the facts covered, until I came to this paragraph:

In principle, there are three ways of limiting human environmental impacts: through population policy, technology and governance. The first of those does not offer much scope. Population growth is already slowing almost as fast as it naturally could. Easier access to family planning, especially in Africa, could probably lower its expected peak from around 9 billion to perhaps 8.5 billion. Only Chinese-style coercion would bring it down much below that; and forcing poor people to have fewer children than they want because the rich consume too many of the world’s resources would be immoral.
The well-meaning authors of this article are simply wrong here. If women around the world with an unmet need for family planning had affordable access to modern contraception, population growth could be slowing a heck of a lot faster. The authors also failed to disclose that the projection of 9 billion people in 2050 is dependent upon drastic fertility declines in the countries where population is growing fastest. So we're really talking about the difference between 9 and 11 billion (the projection if fertility rates stay the same as they are now), not 8.5 and 9 billion. And to suggest that any sane person supports a population policy that would force poor women to have fewer children so the rich of the world can consume more is just absurd.

The briefing, "Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less" describes the global move toward replacement-level fertility (the level required for each generation to replace the last). This article at least mentions unwanted pregnancies and unmet need for family planning as factors in high fertility, but the reader is quickly diverted to discussion of girls' education--which is a proxy factor for lower fertility--and then reminded of the terrible coercion of China's one-child policy.

Another briefing, "The rich are different" quickly outlines the phenomenon of rising fertility in the developed countries that have higher gender equality than in the countries where fertility remains unprecedentedly low.

I hate to criticize whenever someone, especially a respected news source, pays attention to population issues, but I just had to point out a couple of the major flaws in the authors' arguments.

Here is the letter I sent in response to the lead article. Letters are published on Thursdays, so we'll see then if mine makes the cut. *Update: There were no letters printed about the fertility articles today. Maybe next week...

In “Go forth and multiply a lot less,” the UN medium population projection of 9.2 billion in 2050 is accepted as destiny. As The Economist surely knows, projections are dependent on assumptions. The scenario that would deliver a population of 9.2 billion is ambitious fertility decline starting now. In fact, projections range from 8-11 billion people, depending on how quickly fertility falls. If it drops drastically and soon, growth could stop at 8 billion; if fertility decline stagnates, population will still be growing at 11 billion in 2050.

Kenya’s fertility rate was declining impressively until a couple of years ago, when the country experienced a significant reduction in family planning aid. As a result, population projections for 2050 were doubled. Timing is everything because of the inherent momentum that keeps population growing even after “replacement level fertility” is achieved. The larger the base of women yet to reach their reproductive years, the larger the population will grow once they start having children.

The rapid fertility decline in Matlab, Bangladesh was precipitated by the availability of contraceptives, not higher incomes or better health—those followed as a result. Fertility drops when incomes rise because people can finally afford contraceptives. When contraception is available at no cost, all economic quintiles have similarly low fertility, as in Thailand and Vietnam. Educated women are, indeed, more likely to want fewer children. But they’re also more likely to be in economic positions that allow them to purchase contraceptives.

The article got most things right, but it simplified the role of family planning in fertility decline. Women want smaller families and tend to use contraception if they are educated about the methods and most importantly, if they have access. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have high fertility because many women have no access. Donor countries have fallen shamefully short of the amounts they pledged for family planning assistance at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Every year that we under-fund family planning is another step closer to a world of 11 billion.

1 comment:

  1. Great comment to the editor, it could be a great addition to the next Economist.