Thursday, October 19, 2006

Population growth - a threat to development in Africa

7.59 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I echo the congratulations expressed to my noble friend Lord Taverne on his brilliant speech, in which he argued most effectively that a reduction in the rate of population growth is an effective means of promoting development in Africa. That sentiment has been echoed by every other noble Lord who has spoken.

Last year, the UN report on population challenges and development goals concluded that reduction of birth rates led to a “demographic bonus” whereby the number of people of working age increased relative to those of the children and the elderly, contributing significantly to economic growth and poverty reduction. But the UN study of world population prospects in 2004 showed that, over the last 30 years, the lowest reductions in fertility occurred in 12 African high-fertility countries, as has been mentioned. These countries are forecast to have the highest population growth, coupled with the lowest chance of reaching the millennium development goals, particularly as regards infant and maternal mortality and universal primary education.

The Africa Commission said that Africa's population is exploding and that millions are migrating to the slums of cities, where the young are unemployed and disaffected. Yet it fails to link the population explosion with Africa’s underdevelopment or to emphasise the negative feedback between high rates of growth and the acute environmental risks affecting the continent. That point was mentioned by several noble Lords. The commission recommends that donors should do all that they can to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive services, including the provision of an extra $300 million in commodity requirements. But it offers no suggestions about how to overcome the inertia or obstruction by Governments and religious organisations to these programmes, a matter to which my noble friend Lord Taverne referred.

There have been shortages of condoms in Africa. Last year, there was a particular shortage in Uganda, to which my noble friend referred. I think that that shortage was partly caused by the American plan for AIDS relief driven by the religious right, which emphasises abstinence. The DfID profile on Uganda rightly praises the Government of President Museveni for reducing the prevalence of HIV and AIDS from 18 per cent to 6 per cent in a decade. But many women are still unable to exercise freedom of choice over their own fertility. One-third of Ugandan women say that they would like to stop or postpone having children if they could. They are among the100 million to 200 million whom the noble Viscount,

18 Oct 2006 : Column 855

Lord Craigavon, referred to who want to control their fertility but who do not have the means of doing so.

According to UN estimates—and this was also referred to by my noble friend—Uganda's population may treble from 42 million in 2005 to 127 million in 2050. With similar increases in other countries in that region, climate change—which is linked to population increase, as the noble Lord, Lord Jones, remarked and is likely to reduce agricultural production because of extended desertification, lack of water, loss of soil fertility and reduction of crop yields—could bring about conflicts over resources, mass starvation and large-scale emigration long before the mid-century arrives. Droughts have increased in frequency in the Horn from one in eight years to one in three, and there are too many cattle for the carrying capacity of the people, but too few to feed the increasing number of mouths. In Somalia, the desperation of people living on the edge of survival is already reinforcing the growth of radical Islam. Even war-torn Somalia, without a functioning Government or health service, is estimated to have a population increase from8 million in 2005 to 21 million in 2050, while the combined populations of Kenya and Tanzania will double over the same period to 150 million. It is inconceivable that east Africa can sustain increases of this order.

The question is: what can the countries themselves and the donor community do to avert the looming catastrophe? A far greater emphasis on the MDG of promoting gender equality and empowering women would be an essential part of any strategy, because if women controlled their own fertility they would not have very large families. Bill Gates wrote in the Independent the other day:

“Abstinence is not an option for some poor men and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age...And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself; it depends on a man”.

I would argue that abstinence is in any case an unworkable policy and contrary to human nature, but if women themselves decided when to get married and could decide on whether contraceptives should be used, both population growth and HIV/AIDS infections would be reduced, as has been remarked, and women liberated from the burden and health risks of constant childbearing would be able to make a far greater contribution to the economy, especially in agriculture.

In fact, 120 million women in sub-Saharan Africa are illiterate and most African women have less access to land and education than ever before. Elizabeth Chacko of George Washington University points out that Kerala in India has a low fertility rate compared with that of India as a whole because the women of Kerala have a relatively high status, are well educated and are integrated into the workforce. She says that whether a woman can read, can understand what methods of contraception are available to her and is empowered to use them can have a great impact on fertility rates.

DfID says that one of its key priorities is to get more girls into school, leading to greater economic growth, less poverty and reduced fertility, and that is

18 Oct 2006 : Column 856

an important contribution towards attaining the MDG of promoting gender equality. But six years ago DfID also said in an excellent report on poverty and women's empowerment that education alone would not be enough—inequalities needed to be tackled across the board in economic, political, social and cultural life. The Beijing World Conference on Women of 1995 identified 12 critical areas of concern, of which one was unequal access to education and training—one very important one, but not the only one. So I suggest to the Minister that it is time for DfID to review the strategy for poverty elimination and the empowerment of women and to upgrade accordingly its country programmes for Africa. That is not only the right policy for its own sake, but the best way to harness the talent and energies of half the population of Africa and to prevent a Malthusian catastrophe from overwhelming the continent within two generations.
8.7 pm

No comments: