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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
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
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
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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