The 7 Billionth Question: Are We Missing the Point?

Public residential buildings are seen in Po Lam, one of the “satellite towns” in Hong Kong, on September 14, 2011. This southern Chinese city is described as a concrete forest, famous for the number of high-rise commercial and residential towers. About 25 percent of the world’s tallest 100 residential buildings stand in the territory. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

“Our world is one of terrible contradictions… Plenty of food but one billion people go hungry. Lavish lifestyles for a few, but poverty for too many others.”

–          UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon 31st Oct 2011

Just two minutes before midnight on the 31st of October 2011, in the crowded Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila Philippines, the tiny Danica May Camacho was born. A few thousand kilometres away in Mall village Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Baby Nargis was born at 07:25 local time (01:55GMT). Both babies along with several others around the world have been identified as seven billionth babies, marking the 7 billion milestone of the world’s population identified by the United Nations. This staggering and somewhat fascinating massive surge in global population has brought to the fore many issues primarily bordering on the consequences of the growing population on global resources and impact on the environment. The question is that is this really a problem and does this really signal a population crisis? If so will the proposed measures actually address this problem?

Global population has been on a dramatic and rapid increase in the last two centuries. In the late 18th century when the renowned British economist and clergyman, Reverend Thomas Malthus famously remarked that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or in other words, that the geometric increase in global population would far outstrip the arithmetic increase in food production. Since then, the world’s population  reached 1 billion in 1804,  hit 2 billion in 1927 after 123 years, then the pace accelerated to 3 billion in 1959, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1998  and now 7 billion in 2011 and counting. According to UN forecasts, the world would have more than 10 billion people by 2083.

While the bulk of this population increase is in developing countries, half of this population it is projected will come from Sub-Saharan Africa which already has the highest birth-rates and the deepest poverty in countries such as Niger, Burundi, Mali, Nigeria. As the driver of this population increase is fertility, Professor Jeffrey Sachs,  renowned development economist states that in such countries, families have 6-8 children on average while simultaneously in the developed world, fertility rates have reduced.

As global population increases, the world is not only becoming overcrowded according to some demographers, environmentalists and development economists, but also that finite and exhaustible global resources such as fossil fuels, soil fertility, forests, fisheries and ground water are being rapidly depleted. Thus there has been a corresponding increase in food scarcity, droughts, water shortages, competition for viable energy sources and environmental damage due to increased use of fossil fuels, pollution and deforestation.  Such experts state that food and most especially water shortages if not checked, could fuel political destabilization in developing countries.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent and still on going drought and famine in the horn of Africa which has affected over 11 million people in Somalia, parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda, regarded by the UNHCR as the worst humanitarian crisis of the region in 60 years. The growing phenomenon of “land grabbing” where companies in countries like Saudi Arabia, China and the UK acquire large hectares of land in places such as Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, Madagascar, Ukraine and Sierra Leone  in order to capture water resources for large-scale agriculture and growing bio-fuel crops also lends credence to this argument, as it leaves subsistence farmers displaced, vulnerable and at the expense of these large corporations.

Most importantly, the persistence of poverty and underdevelopment in these developing countries as evidenced by lack of employment opportunities, increase in violent conflict over access to food, water and other economic opportunities and the prevalence of diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are aggravated by a growing unmanaged population. The population density of large cities such as Lagos, Jakarta and Mumbai ensures that such diseases are easily spread.

Most of the solutions to arrest this population crisis proposed by the development experts revolve around family planning policies to be put in place by the government since the people in these countries are regarded as too poor and incapable of making such choices themselves. As Jeffrey Sachs argues, family planning would be available and the families would be expected to VOLUNTARILY choose to have fewer children which would be better for them and for their children as they would have better nutrition, better healthcare and greater opportunities of living better lives for “when they are very very poor, they need help to be able to have those choices”.

However, one cannot help wondering whether this issue is really being examined from the most pragmatic perspective. While indeed growing population is putting a strain on global resources, evidence shows that the rising population in developing countries has little bearing on the consumption of global resources. The UN Human Development Report (HDR) shows that 54% of global income goes to the richest 10% of the world’s population, while 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day or 40% of the world’s population receive only 5% of global income. The Economist reported in January 2011 that “the richest 1% of adults control 43% of the world’s assets; the wealthiest 10% have 83% of global assets while the bottom 50% have only 2%”. In fact according to The Guardian UK of the 23rd October 2011, one Briton has the carbon footprint of about 22 Africans. Even in terms of carbon emissions and pollution, it is mostly perpetrated by industries, firms and corporations of developed countries. As George Monbiot, an author and activist notes, in the face of western over-consumption criticising expanding population in developing countries means “blaming the victims”

Furthermore, overcrowding and population density typically abound in major cities in both the developed and the developing world. John Bongaarts of the New York-based Population Council notes that “most of that growth will be in Africa’s cities, and in those cities it will almost all be in slums where living conditions are horrible”. Thus, many small towns and rural areas in developing countries have large swathes of land which are sparsely populated and could accommodate millions of people easily. It is noteworthy that other factors such as rampant rural-urban migration account for the swelling population of many developing-country cities.  Conversely many developed economies in Europe, North America and even parts of East Asia are faced with shrinking birth rates and rapidly ageing populations notably Japan, Italy and Russia where birth rates are lower than replacement rates of less than 2.1 children per woman. In order to reverse this ageing population, countries like Russia have initiated a policy known as “mother capital” where women are paid about $10,000 to have more than one child albeit with little success. Thus, there seems to be plenty of space to fit everyone and more as it has even been argued that the entire 7 billion people of the earth could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the city of Los Angeles, California.

At this point, a question worth asking is that if global population is putting a strain on global resources and threatening the earth’s delicate eco balance, should the most viable solution then, be embarking on projects of halting this growing population in developing countries through family planning? This is far from pragmatic, it is unsustainable, not to mention highly unfair for if as evidence shows, developing countries are not responsible for excessive over consumption of resources and the world still has space to accommodate so many more people, then why should people’s reproductive rights be interfered with? What assurances are there that some governments would not embark on over-zealous coercive depopulation measures such as India’s mass sterilisation campaign in the 1970s where thousands of men and women were forced to undergo vasectomy and tubal ligation respectively. Whole villages were reported to have been rounded up for sterilisation with a ruthless efficiency and it persists to this day, though to a much lesser extent.

The following pictures by professional freelance photographer and author Nick Rain, shot in December 2003, reveals the sordid story of the mass sterilization camps in India:

 In a remote part of India on the border with Nepal a local clinic managed to convince the local women to come enmasse to undergo sterilization to combat poverty. The women however were not aware how the crude operation would be carried out. The operation took place inside the dirty clinic with hundreds of women waiting like cattle to be operated on.Copyright: Nick Rain.

One by one the women were put on the operating table, the instrument used looked like a twelve inch metal tube with a sharp edge at one end. It was then forced into the womans stomach and the physician looked through the instrument and made what looked like a twist and a snip, a quick stich and a plaster and the women were dragged outside to recover on the grass. This operation is called Tubal Ligation. Copyright: Nick Rain.

In the face of deeply entrenched socio-cultural beliefs and values over reproductive rights in many developing countries, where children are regarded as a “blessing” from God and the inability to bear children easily leads to stigmatization, or in rural areas where children are still seen as a sign of wealth so that they can work on farms, it is quite unlikely that people can be reasonably convinced to drastically limit the number of children they bring into this world. Suspicion and allegations of covert Western support and prodding for coercive population control in developing countries does not help matters either given that wealthy countries like US from 1966 under President Lyndon Johnson, Japan, Sweden and UK have devoted large funds to reducing Third World birth rates. For example, in Peru, the government of former President Alberto Fujimori’s forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of poor, rural Peruvians between 1995 and 2000 under a “public health” plan is reported to have been principally financed using funds from USAID, the Japanese Nippon Foundation, and later, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In Nigeria there have been various controversies over alleged “covert” plans by global powers to sterilize women and control population.

With such facts, one could argue that the international community seems to be unrealistically putting undue emphasis on population and birth control in developing countries at the expense of more important issues such as providing greater opportunities for education and empowerment so that the poor and disadvantaged can have better opportunities in life, can be lifted out of poverty and contribute meaningfully to their communities’ development. Improving access to basic agriculture technologies for many people in the poorest countries whose livelihoods depend on subsistence farming is one way to reduce the threat of food scarcity. As research shows that women who finish at least secondary school are in a better position to make informed choices about their reproductive options and are more likely to plan for and have fewer kids that they can actually take care of, educating and empowering women should be the top priority. The growing youth population of many Sub Saharan countries such as Nigeria or Kenya where up to half the population is under 25 years old, regarded by experts as a “youth dividend” could fuel a productive surge if they are meaningfully engaged, trained, educated  and their potential utilized. It is very easy to envision how the potential of the teeming youth of Nigeria’s over 166 million people could be harnessed to revive the agriculture sector and to power desperately needed manufacturing and industrialization especially in the North.

Therefore, while world population especially in developing countries is growing at a rapid pace, a more realistic, pragmatic and sustainable approach needs to be taken by the development community in managing the situation by advocating for a balance in utilization and consumption of resources. Developing country governments in Sub Saharan Africa on their own part need to focus more on empowering their vibrant and dynamic people and orienting them towards more sustainable development.


The video below is an episode of a show on Russia Today called Cross Talk, where current affairs are discussed. The debate in this episode centers around the population crisis debate.