Curbing the Myth of Overpopulation to Fight Poverty

Wendt Scholar
Nicholas Eberstadt

President Obama has ended the ban on federal funds imposed by the Bush Administration on groups that promote or perform abortions abroad and on the United Nations Population Fund. He must take this opportunity to put pressure on the UNFPA to concentrate on the health of women and babies--and to stop wasting money assaulting the poor with wrongheaded population-control schemes.

"Continued rapid population growth poses a bigger threat to poverty reduction in most countries than HIV/AIDS," the UNFPA said in an hysterical statement on World Population Day, last July. This is plain wrong: it is not human numbers that cause poverty, but bad economic policies, laws and institutions.

The densely-populated Netherlands and Japan are prosperous but poor in resources, while much of impoverished Africa is thinly populated but rich in resources. The United States rose to affluence with one of the world's highest long-term population growth rates, while now-prosperous Ireland had negative long-term rates. Clearly, neither human numbers nor natural resources are keys to the modern story of global wealth and poverty.

It is clear that neither human numbers nor natural resources are keys to the modern story of global wealth and poverty.

The UNFPA talks of "women's empowerment and gender equality" and "universal access to reproductive health" but, despite this politically-correct discourse, it remains committed to its original purpose of reducing population growth: reproductive healthcare is "the most practicable option for slowing population growth," it says, equating this with poverty, food insecurity and environmental degradation.

These fallacies hark back to the 18th century economist Thomas Robert Malthus. Like many other pressure groups and NGOS, the UNFPA continues to commit elementary analytical errors: ignoring evidence staring us in the face.

The 20th century saw human numbers quadruple to more than six billion but food production widely outstripped population growth, average life expectancy doubled to well over 60 years, while global GDP per capita more than quintupled.

In the 1960s, alarmists such as Paul Ehrlich predicted imminent mass famine around the world. Indeed, in the last couple of years global food prices briefly shot up--maize, wheat and rice all doubled or tripled in a short time--but fell back again. In fact, the long-term trend in real grain prices over the past century has been heading steadily downward, at an average of seven to 10 percent per decade (depending on the product).To be sure, a horrifying number of people today still live in squalor, scourged by disease and hunger--but the correct name for this is poverty, not "overpopulation." In countries where people cannot securely own property, cannot sell their produce freely and get scant protection in law, government is poverty's handmaiden.

Population alarmists and their allies in the U.N. are deluding themselves when they claim government intervention can reduce fertility rates and "stabilize" population. Their mantra is that education, high literacy and cheap birth control lead to lower birth rates.

Health, literacy and voluntary contraception are meritorious objectives in their own right, irrespective of any influence on population growth. But it is misleading to claim they predictably reduce birth rates.

Take literacy. The adult literacy rate in 2006 was about a third higher in Malawi than Morocco (54 percent vs. 40 percent), yet fertility levels in Malawi were double. Family planning campaigns are similarly unpredictable: in 1974 Mexico started a vigorous campaign to cut population growth and got fertility levels down by 56 percent but Brazil's fertility level fell by 54 percent with no campaign at all, in the same quarter century. These are not cherry-picked examples: there is simply no way of knowing in advance the impact of family-planning programs on birth rates.

It turns out that the single best international predictor of fertility levels is the number of children that women say they would like. The only proven way of curbing population growth is coercion, as in India briefly in the 1970s and in UNFPA-client China today. There is no other assured way of accomplishing immediate and dramatic birth reductions through population policy--period.

Many organizations, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, already work to promote the health of women and children internationally. Plainly, many global health threats, from maternal and neonatal deaths to diarrhea, malaria and other infectious diseases, are creations of poverty. Only economic growth and freedom, not deceitful population programs from the UNFPA, can empower women and spare them poverty and premature death.

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and a demographer by training, is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books range from The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999) to The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008).


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