West African governments want to cut population growth in half, but for whose benefit?

How many of you are there?
How many of you are there?
Image: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell
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By 2050, the world is projected to be a lot more African. The continent’s population is set to double from 1.26 billion people to 2.53 billion and will account for a quarter of the planet’s people. While Europe’s population stagnates, “Africa will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world’s population over the next few decades,” according to a UN report on the topic.

For some European politicians, Africa’s rapid population growth constitutes a major problem for Africa—but also for Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron said recently Africa’s “civilizational” problems were in part due to women having “7 or 8 children,” while Denmark’s minister for development cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs, recently committed $14 million to family planning in developing countries. She argued “part of the solution to reducing migratory pressure on Europe is to reduce the very high population growth in many African countries.”

African governments have encouraged foreign-funded family planning programs for years. But on July 22, West African politicians took a new and unusual step to curb population growth themselves. At a conference on health and family planning in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, West African parliamentarians committed to allocate 5% of national budgets to family planning programs in order to cut birth rates in the region down to three children per woman by 2030, down from 5.6 children currently.

“If there are millions more people who are dependents than there are people who are (actively working), it’s clear that no matter our economic growth, we will not reduce poverty” said the head of the West African parliamentary group on population growth, Dr. Ousseni Tamboura, who is the vice president of Burkina Faso’s parliament.

But it’s never been clear cut that high population growth is really an impediment to development, particularly for Africa. “It’s a very bizarre argument they are making. It’s almost abhorrent,” says Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa of the Ecowas announcement. “You’re given a resource, almost like manna from the heavens, so to speak. You just have to use it appropriately. You have to make sure they go to school, they get trained, they get skills that the economy needs, and then magical things happen. That’s what everyone else has done,” Chelwa said.

For Harvard’s Calestous Juma, poverty is the cause of high birth rates rather than the other way around. “High fertility rates result from lack of development, especially poor access to maternal and child health care,” explains Juma, who is a professor of international development. “A family can choose to limit its size if it can guarantee child survival through health care. The alternative is having more children in the hope that a few will survive.”

And as ever with these debates such as these, African women, who should be at the heart of such family planning discussions are rarely involved in the decision making process either at the policy level or at home. With so young girls and women still being excluded from formal education, particularly in sub Saharan Africa, education will play a more important role in population control than enforced rules or even contraception say experts.

Olufunke Baruwa, the C.E.O. of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, an organization that advocates for more female representation in government says the more money and education a woman has, the less likely she is to have a large family. “A lot of women who are elite, educated, don’t have more than three children,” she says.

Juma argues the priority should be on “joint investments in infrastructure, technical education, enterprise development combined with family planning. This will give more people hope about the future of Afro-European cooperation,” he said. On the other hand, some commentators contend that African governments simply do not have the capital to invest properly in education and infrastructure.

The idea that Europeans may again be setting the African agenda rather than Africans doing so is a feeling many people can not shake. But there is little doubt that some of Africa’s most heavily populated countries are really struggling to turn their large populations into a positive resource. That’s because even commodity-rich countries seem to struggle to develop their citizens into the valuable advantage they could be for the economy.

For example, Nigeria’s education budget may be a paltry $1.2 billion for an estimated 190 million people, but that might have more to do with allocation and accountability of state resources rather than a simple lack thereof. After all, the government’s oil agency, NNPC, withheld nearly $16 billion from the federal government in 2014, according to the auditor-general.

“Most of Africa’s biggest economies like Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are all struggling following the downturn in commodity prices since 2014,” says Remi Adekoya, a political scientist at UK’s Sheffield University. “There need to be determined efforts to curb Africa’s population growth because financial resources are not limitless, neither that of Africa nor of the international community, which may be inclined to help.”

While financial resources at home and abroad are certainly not limitless, they are not entirely scarce, either. The EU recently committed $2.9 billion to the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for programs to stop migration to Europe, and a large amount of that money is earmarked to address the “root causes” of migration, including job creation.

The $2.5 billion Family Planning 2020 organization, launched in 2013 and led by the UK government, other European countries, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NGOs, and other private organizations, has as its main goal to “enable 120 million more women and girls to use contraceptives by 2020,” with Africa as a main focus.

It is unclear whether Ecowas will be able to reach their target anyway. “I think it’s noble to want to control birth rates,” says Baruwa. But it’s not a very easy feat to achieve, especially when you’ve got a predominantly uneducated, poor, patriarchal culture where access to birth control is a religious issue.” Religious pressure from both imams and priests have made abortions and birth control controversial and sometimes illegal. Even access to condoms is limited in such communities.

Ultimately, as Harvard’s Juma says, “the best contraceptive is investing in people so they can lead healthy and productive lives.”