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Friday, 13 March 2009

Chiengi's "malthusian trap"?

The Government reckons that Chiengi's high fertility rates are retarding development in the area.


  1. Unfortunately, mere mention of Malthusian Traps can in and of itself be a kind of political trap. After all, Malthus excelled at telling people things that they didn't want to hear and would rather not believe. I recall several years ago coming across a classic fight between him and Smith on, where Malthus patiently and repeatedly tries to explain why attempts to fix a common price for "corn" (non-wheat grains like flax and rye, not maize) throughout western Europe was a recipe for rural economic disaster and boom/bust induced population growth followed by food shortages.

    In the modern world we have available several examples of different approaches to the "reality" of such traps, on a variety of geographic and time scales. The classic dichotomy can be observed in the Pacific islands, where isolation allowed for as near laboratory conditions as the messy business of human society permits. Two of the most isolated took entirely different approaches to human populations and resource limitations, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Tikopia. After thousands of years on their own, they were found by european explorers in completely different states, with Rapa Nui completely deforested (there is evidence that the island harbored some of the world's largest tree species when humans arrived) and the population locked into a cycle of perpetual warfare and even cannibalism. Meanwhile, Tikopia had gone the exact opposite direction, strictly limiting both population growth (by way of a kind of ritual suicide for younger sons and daughters, given naught but canoes with which to search in vain for new land upon reaching childbearing age) and sustainable seasonal harvests of both ocean and terrestrial resources. When the Dutch attempted to raise the island's population by 20% after colonization, all their "modern" sewage and agricultural systems began breaking down or producing unintended consequences within decades, problems which subsided once they agreed to bring the population back down to the "traditional" number and resume permaculture harvesting.

    In a shorter time frame, but on the other end of the scale, we have the current dichotomy between the approaches to extreme population density of India and China. The controversial "one child policy" for Han Chinese has now been in place for several decades, and has had a dramatic effect on the nation's average fertility rate. Infanticide of female babies, a widespread practice in the early years of the policy's implementation, has dwindled as gender-skewed generations (in some provinces the ratio is 55::45 or higher among 15-25 year-olds) grow old enough to seek their own mates, and the relative shortage of marriageable women is forcing a reevaluation of the value of baby girls and dowry arrangements. Household level benefits of overall national growth are being concentrated, as the combined resources of both families are oriented to supporting a single grandchild. The effect on health, nutrition, and especially educational attainment has been enormous. China is widely expected to emerge from the current global crisis in an even stronger relative position in the world economy.

    Meanwhile, India has undertaken a more piecemeal, voluntary approach to population control, with negligible apparent effects on average fertility. While their overall economy has grown dramatically, few of the benefits have been felt by either the urban or rural poor. It is estimated that India must add at least 10 million new jobs to its economy this year just to keep pace with population growth. It is also estimated that they will have lost around 10 million jobs just this month due to reductions in global demand for their exports. To quote Dr. A. V. Ramana Kumar, South Asian Voice, 2003:

    "In addition to the problem of scarce resources, high population growth also has serious social consequences. As is already quite evident, industrial growth can, and is taking place with virtually no increase in the demand for labor. Improved agricultural implements and expanded availability of tractors and mechanical threshers and harvesters has meant that there has been little growth in the demand for agricultural labor. Since most of the population growth in India is taking place amongst those who will have the least skills when entering the job market - India is likely to be inundated with either completely illiterate or very poorly schooled youth and children in a stagnant, or perhaps even shrinking job market. Since their social contribution (and political bargaining power) is perceived as being very limited, little money is spent on their social welfare. The few government schemes run in their names are eaten away by corrupt government officials. It is thus likely, that in the absence of strong social organizations that represent the interests of the poor and help build a more humane and just society, their seething discontent could manifest itself in unexpected and unpleasant ways.

    "So far, most sections of India's elite have done little to push for a serious population policy. In large part this has been because they have benefited from this unending supply of cheap labor. But this unending supply of cheap and largely unskilled labor also has serious unrecorded economic consequences. In the global market, this puts Indian industry at a competitive disadvantage rather than advantage. Higher rates of profit are to be found in those industries where the labor force is well educated and highly trained. Indians who wish to sell India's "cheap" labor in the world market will find that the scope for selling commodities produced by cheap labor is ultimately quite limited. That will not turn India into the "Asian Tiger” as some imagine, quite the contrary.

    Now I am not trying to assert that Zambia is anywhere near needing state-sponsored fertility quotas or ritual suicides. However, I am concerned about the seemingly large group of Zambians who seem to believe that a high birth rate will somehow automatically translate into economic growth. For Christians the line most often cited is "be fruitful and multiply," which I have always taken as step by step instruction, first be fruitful, then multiply. I do not understand those who seem to think that by multiplying they are automatically fruitful and therefore unquestionably following a divinely inspired course of action.


  3. A brief illustration of the effects of high population growth on the effectiveness of poverty reduction and other social service provision:

    The current population of Chiengi is growing at a rate of 3.5% per year. This is fast any way you look at it, doubling every 20 years. By contrast, growth of 2.5% results in doubling after 28 years, and 1.5% results in doubling after 47 years. The population is going to grow, there is no talk of anyone being denied procreation rights. It is just a question of how fast it all happens.

    Now we already know that the current level of social services available to the population in the area, and the nation as a whole, is insufficient to meet the current needs of the people. In nursing for example, the recommended target number recognized by the government is 22,332 nurses on staff throughout the country. After a 4.1% increase over the last year, staffing levels are now up to 9,563 nurses. How effective is a 4.1% increase?

    Well, if the population grows at 3.5%, then (104.1% nurses / 103.5% patients = 100.58% service delivery), whereas population growth of 3.0% results in (104.1% / 103% = 101.07%), and growth of 2.5% gives (104.1% / 102.5% = 101.56%). Thus a 15% reduction in population growth would make existing efforts to improve nursing staff levels 185% more effective, while a 30% reduction in population growth would make existing programmes 269% more effective. Or in other words, at the present rate of staff increase and with 3.5% population growth, Zambia would reach the recommended target number of nurses in 147 years. Reduce population growth by about 15% to 3.0% per year and that time is reduced to 81 years. Reduce population growth by around 30% to 2.5% and the country reaches the nursing target in 55 years.

    The numbers for schools are also grim, with the number of enrollments at primary schools increasing by 5.4%, and the number of schools to accommodate them increasing by just 1.8%. The nation has done a commendable job expanding primary education to cover 94.7% of eligible pupils, however still only 51.2% are able to find places for grade 8, and just 21.9% complete grade 12. High school enrollments are up 7.9%, but there is still a massive amount of secondary school infrastructure and staffing to go before the expanded wave of primary school graduates can be adequately served. Needless to say, a 15-30% reduction in the need for further expansion of primary education would greatly ease this burden over the next decades.

    Certainly population growth is not the only variable in the equation but it is an important one. For example training and hiring more nurses and teachers or building more hospitals and schools faster would help, but where do the funds come from? I should note as well that one need not have fewer children to decrease the population growth rate, just have them slightly later in life and/or slightly more spread out over your life. Live longer, give birth later, have the same number of healthier, better educated children.


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