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Rethinking the Population Taboo

PRINCETON – At a press conference during last month’s G20 summit in Hamburg, a journalist from the Ivory Coast asked French President Emmanuel Macron why the world’s rich countries have not developed a plan to assist Africa in overcoming its problems, as the United States’ Marshall Plan had aided Europe after World War II.

Macron’s reply was lengthy, and much of it made good sense. He pointed out that, unlike post-war Europe, Africa does not require reconstruction; its problems require more sophisticated responses. He referred to Africa’s failed states and difficult transitions to democracy, but also noted that some African countries are making good progress, and have achieved high rates of economic growth.

But Macron also said two things that caused outrage on social media and led to accusations of racism.

In describing Africa’s problems, Macron called them “civilizational.” That was, at best, an unfortunate choice of words, for it echoes the nineteenth-century idea that France and other imperial powers have a “civilizing mission” in Africa and other places inhabited by people who at the time were regarded as being of an inferior race.

As other commentators have pointed out, Macron’s “civilizational” explanation was also the kind of generalization that fails to recognize the existence of more than 50 countries, with diverse problems that cannot be described with a single adjective. In fairness to Macron, it should be said that the Ivory Coast journalist framed his question in a manner that invited this kind of broad and undifferentiated approach.

The second comment that aroused a hostile response was a reference to Africa’s rapid population growth. Even if you spend billions of euros, Macron said, you will not be able to stabilize anything “when countries still have seven to eight children per woman.”

With these words, Macron gave an exaggerated impression of fertility in Africa. According to the 2017 edition of the United Nations publication World Population Prospects, there is no country, anywhere in the world, in which women give birth, on average, to as many as eight children. Niger, one of the world’s poorest states, on the edge of the Sahara desert, is the only country where women average more than seven births. Next comes Somalia, where the average is 6.6. For Africa as a whole, the current fertility rate is 4.7.

The outrage evoked by Macron’s remark, however, appears to have little to do with its inaccuracy. Macron violated a taboo that has been in place since the International Conference on Population and Development, held under the auspices of the UN in Cairo in 1994. The conference adopted a Programme of Action that rejected a demographically driven approach to population policies, and instead focused on meeting the reproductive-health needs of individuals, especially women. Population targets were out; rights were in.

That approach prevailed at several subsequent meetings. It influenced the outcome of the Millennium Summit, which set global development goals for the 2000-2015 period, and is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, which set the agenda until 2030. Among its 17 goals and 169 specific targets, the SDGs include references to family planning and reproductive rights, in the context of women’s health and gender equality. One searches in vain for any suggestion that it might be appropriate, or wise, to seek to influence the number of children women choose to have, let alone to consider whether continued rapid population growth in some regions may be incompatible with the goal of sustainable development. Since the Cairo conference, such proposals have been portrayed as colonialist and patriarchal, if not racist. White men should not be telling black women not to have babies.

To be sure, there is no shortage of historical precedents – India’s mass sterilization programs and China’s one-child policy, to name just two – for concern about coercive population policies. Nonetheless, we question the wisdom of the taboo on discussing population. According to World Population Prospects, the populations of Angola, Burundi, Niger, Somalia, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia are projected to increase fivefold by 2100. Niger, which has 21 million people today, is expected to have 192 million by the end of the century.

Such rapid population growth seems likely to make it even more difficult for these countries to eradicate poverty and malnutrition, and to ensure that all citizens receive a quality education and basic health care. And poverty, malnutrition, and under-education are far more likely to affect girls and women today than are coercive population policies. In fact, current efforts to provide women with effective contraception are meeting women’s expressed desires to have fewer children.

Admittedly, we do not know what new technologies or social institutions may, by 2100, enable even the least-developed countries to offer an adequate standard of living for all of their inhabitants. But Macron was not being unreasonable when he suggested that the prospect of such rapid population increase is relevant to questions about the efficacy of a concerted effort to overcome poverty in Africa.