Too small a world?: Family planning has failed to control the growth in population. Geoffrey Lean discovers there are other ways

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The Independent Online
UNUSUALLY for a former cabinet minister, Mahbub ul Haq is happy to talk about where he went wrong. It happened, when as minister of planning and finance in Pakistan for most of the Eighties, he tried to curb its rapid population growth with a contraceptive campaign.

'I decided that this had to have the top priority in our development plans, and so, in a most unusual step for a finance minister, I announced that there would be no limit to the money to be spent on family planning programmes,' he said.

'I set out to saturate the villages with condoms. We got them into every shop. I had people design the most attractive dispensers so that as each condom was sold another would fall into position. People were fascinated just to watch them.'

He got round an official ban on advertising condoms on radio and television by the ingenious device of calling them 'Sathi', meaning companions. So his widely broadcast slogan came out as the apparently innocuous: 'Take a companion with you.'

'I thought such an initiative was going to go down well in history,' said Dr ul Haq, now one of the most senior officials in the United Nations Development Programme. 'But it was my greatest policy disaster. Despite the campaign the population growth rate actually went up]' To this day Pakistan has one of the lowest uses of contraceptives in Asia, and its population is set to more than double to 260 million in the next 30 years.

The story serves as a cautionary tale for the 15,000 people due to attend the controversial UN International Conference on Population and Development, which opens in Cairo this week. It is being billed as the world's last chance to contain the population explosion. The UN Population Fund, which is organising the conference, estimates that, by the year 2025, the world will have nearly 8,500 million people, about half as many again as today. It will be a world (see map) that has been transformed even within our own lifetimes. Some 84 per cent of the population will live in the Third World, more than 40 per cent in China and the Indian subcontinent alone. In 1950, Africa had about half as many people as Europe; by 2025, it will contain more than three times as many.

But what is to be done? The conference has created a strange alliance - between the Pope and militant Islamic leaders. The pontiff has publicly attacked the conference more than 15 times since March, charging that it is attempting to 'destroy the family', and reaffirming his opposition to contraception and abortion. He has upbraided President Bill Clinton, who has reversed Republican policies on population control, and has written to all heads of government, urging each to 'bring your conscience to Cairo'.

The Holy See, which will participate in the conference as a member of the United Nations, has been recruiting allies: Argentina has publicly declared its support for the Vatican line, and is expected to be joined by a group including Nicaragua, the Ivory Coast, Malta, Senegal, Venezuela and Morocco.

Earlier this month, the Vicar of Christ secured a promise of collaboration from Moham mad Hashemi Rafsanjani, the deputy foreign minister of Iran and the president's brother. Muslim League officials have denounced parts of the draft conference resolution as 'repulsive' while the Secretary General of the International Muslim Youth organisation has proclaimed a religious duty to ensure that the conference fails. One leading fundamentalist in Cairo goes further. Some people, he said last week, may be prepared to kill for the cause. 'If the West is afraid of blood, it should stay away.'

Yet, despite the dubious alliance, the Pope is trying to make an important point. It is that successful population policies result from economic development, education and health care - not from family planning programmes. And the story of Mahbub ul Haq and Pakistan's contraception programme suggests that the Pope is half right.

The evidence indicates that social factors are indeed the most powerful in controlling population, and contraception without them can prove as useless as in Pakistan. As Dr ul Haq says: 'We have got to put development back on to the population agenda.' But it also shows that formal family planning programmes are important, and that the most effective progress is made when both these elements are combined.

EVER SINCE Thomas Malthus published his polemical Essay on the Principle of Population 196 years ago, population growth has proved a fertile subject for doomsters. It has also deceived them: Malthus himself recanted in the largely forgotten second edition, published a few years later, asserting that 'an increase in population when it follows in its natural order, is both a great positive good in itself and absolutely necessary to a further increase in the annual produce of the land and labour of any country'.

He was neither the first nor the last British political economist to execute a rapid 180-degree turn and, like others, he managed to be wrong on both occasions. His later belief in the benevolence of population growth looks as nave today as his original apocalyptic predictions. For the rise in numbers has acquired an appalling momentum.

It took the whole of human history until the early 19th century for the world population to reach a single billion (there are thought to have been some 150 million people alive at the time of Christ). The second billion was clocked up at the end of the 1920s. The third arrived in 1960, the fourth in 1976, the fifth in 1987. There are now some 5.7 billion people on the planet and there will be 6 billion inless than four years.

Every year nearly 90 million more people - the population of Mexico or of the whole of northern Europe - crowd the human race. At present rates, population will double again to more than 11 billion in just 40 years. And the growth is concentrated in the areas least able to cope with it: last year 94 per cent of the increase was in developing countries.

Already the strains may be erupting into conflict. Both Lady Chalker, the British overseas aid minister, and Dr Fred Sai, the Ghanian president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, argue that overcrowding is a factor in the tragedy of Rwanda, which is the most densely populated country in Africa.

New doomsters have arisen to propose desperate measures. Pentti Linkola, a leading Finnish intellectual and environmentalist, this summer advocated forcing women who already have two children to have abortions, and stopping Third World aid specifically to cause millions of deaths. The earth is burdened with two and half times as many people as it can support, insists the gloomy Finn - who says he had his last good laugh in the Sixties and so another world war would be 'a happy occasion for the planet'.

Less cataclysmically, the pioneering surgeon Professor Sir Roy Calne is so alarmed by the threat of environmental breakdown that he has just published a book proposing that couples should have to get a licence to have babies. He has six children, but points out that they are 'gainfully employed' and 'not a drain on the state'.

Like Malthus before them these doomsters are wrong. The main drain on the earth's resources and threat to the environment comes from the rich. A baby born in Europe or America will consume about 40 to 50 times as many resources during its lifetime (especially if it becomes 'gainfully employed') as its counterpart in Asia or Africa. Population growth in the United States in the next 30 years, it has been shown, will have more effect on the environment than the increase in numbers in China and India combined.

Professor Paul Ehrlich, the first population doomster, writes this month in Our Planet, the magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme: 'The relatively small population of rich people accounts for roughly two-thirds of global environmental destruction. From this perspective, the most important population problem is overpopulation in the industrialised nations. There are, in fact, too many rich people.'

New figures, also published this month, show that the richest fifth of the world's people have increased their share of its wealth from 70 to 83 per cent over the last three decades, while the meagre proportion divided among the poorest fifth has been cut by nearly half - to just 1.4 per cent.

But won't Third World development simply create more rich people and greater pressure on world resources than the billions of poor people who inhabit Africa and large parts of Asia? The answer is no. It is the super rich (with high consumption and pollution) and the very poor (who are forced to overuse land and cut down trees for fuel) who cause the most environmental damage. A fairer sharing of wealth would ease the pressure at both ends of

the spectrum.

THE EXTREME pessimists are also wrong because remarkable progress has already been made in controlling population growth, even in many developing countries. Human numbers are still rising alarmingly, but the worldwide rate of increase has been falling since the early Seventies, from more than 2 per cent annually to about 1.5 per cent.

The growth rates differ between countries. There has been a startling decline in China, but India is steaming ahead to become the second 'population billionaire' before the end of the decade. There has been an unexpectedly rapid drop throughout Latin America, and good progress in South-east Asia. But growth rates remain high in the Middle East - and catastrophically so in Africa, where numbers are setto double in less than a quarter of a century. A baby born today in Nigeria, for example, and living to 70, can expect to see his country's population multiply eightfold to 900 million.

There is a steady 1 per cent annual increase in North America, slightly more in Australia and New Zealand - but numbers have virtually stagnated in Europe, which is recording its lowest birthrates since records began. Population is actually declining in Italy, Germany and Hungary while the number of Britons grew by only 8,800 over the entire Eighties. This may put less pressure on the world's resources, but it poses formidable problems of its own because an ageing population will have to depend on fewer and fewer earners.

Despite the Pope, a dramatic increase in contraception has brought about much of the decrease in the growth rate. More than half of Third World women of childbearing age now use it, up from a fifth in 1960. Even most of the pontiff's own followers now ignore his strictures: more than half of Mexico's married women use modern family planning, while Brazil is the world's fourth largest manufacturer of contraceptive pills.

But contraception only comes into its own when parents cease to want big families. In poor societies there are good reasons for lots of children. They are economic assets, doing useful work for the family from the age of six or seven, and often producing more than they consume well before they reach their teens. They provide security in old age. Where infant mortality is high, parents need to have lots of babies to ensure that enough survive.

So when early campaigners in India put up posters contrasting a happy family with two children with a miserable one with six, they found that people came flocking to them to discover how to become like the larger family. A study into the failure of India's first major family planning programme found that most people had accepted the free contraceptives out of courtesy to the strangers who had given them, but had never used them. In one house the researchers were shown a religious sculpture made of contraceptives and were told: 'Most of us threw them away: but my brother here, he makes use of everything.'

One Bangladeshi village went even better, feeding the Pills to its chickens, which grew fat, improving the villagers' food supplies.

So though couples who already wanted to control their fertility did find an immediate use for contraception, economic and social development - which gave families more security and confidence - has proved to be even more important. Studies suggest that such development has accounted for about three-fifths of the fall in population growth.

Many countries from Costa Rica to China, Colombia to Thailand, and Sri Lanka to Chile have cut their population growth rates dramatically by combining family planning with development. Even Bangladesh has recently seen its growth rate fall sharply after mixing family planning, health and development programmes.

Tackling the remaining, and still acute, population crisis will demand a similar mix of measures. The UN Population Fund estimates that there are still 120 million Third World women who wish to avoid pregnancy, but do not have access to modern contraception. Meeting that unmet demand would bring the world nearly halfway towards achieving the 'replacement fertility rate' - roughly two children per woman - that will eventually stabilise world population.

But the crisis will not be defused unless the world tackles the main root of population growth - poverty. This need not cost huge sums of new money, but it will entail a reordering of priorities.

The UN Development Programme calculates that the world could achieve universal primary education, halve adult illiteracy, eliminate malnutrition, and provide everyone with safe drinking water and sanitation, family planning services and access to credit by a '20/20 Compact'. This would require developing countries to devote 20 per cent of their budgets (instead of the present 13 per cent) to these goals, while industrialised countries would earmark 20 per cent of their aid (instead of the present 7 per cent) to achieving the same objectives.

Everyone, including the Pope, agrees that one measure, above all, would make a world of difference - increasing the education of women. In country after country this has proved the most crucial factor of all. In countries as diverse as Brazil and Zimbabwe, women with little or no education have an average of six or seven children each while those who have been to secondary school limit themselves to two or three.

Dr Nafis Sadiq, the Secretary General of the Cairo conference, says: 'If we had paid more attention to empowering women 30 years ago, and had listened to their needs, we might well have been ahead of the game as far as population numbers is concerned.'

Mahbub ul Haq, reflecting on his experience in Pakistan, agrees: 'What went wrong was that female literacy in the villages was only 6 per cent. If I had to do it all over again, I would put almost all the money into educating women.'

(Photograph omitted)