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Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, has a long article entitled “Just Too Many?”, arguing that the world needs to end its taboo on discussing population and population control. This is of course pegged on the United Nations’ somewhat gimmicky announcement that the world will pass seven billion people on 31st October. Thugh it is generally a good essay, like so much of the coverage, Maddox’s article fails sufficiently to distinguish the top-down approach to population, which did indeed become taboo after 1994, and the bottom-up one, which did not. The bottom up one focuses on economic development and public health, which together drive down birth rates by enabling women to plan smaller families rather than keep breeding heirs and spares. The top-down approach targets birth rates themselves. I would argue that its cruelties should make us cautious before returning to it. I have sent the following letter to the editor at Prospect:

Your population cover story makes a good case that public-sector experts effectively turned their backs on the issue following the intervention of an unusual mixture of conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. Was this silence entirely a bad thing? Do not underestimate the harm done by the coercion recommended in the 1970s by western intellectuals — and implemented. Egged on by Western governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a pattern all across Asia in the 1970s. Chinese women were forcibly taken from their homes to be sterilised. Cheered on by Robert McNamara’s World Bank, Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards and coercion to force 8 million poor Indians to accept vasectomies. Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa with its recent rapid economic growth). The availability of contraception is necessary but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.

After writing this I came across an unusually (for the BBC) well-researched and well-informed essay on this subject by Mike Gallagher on the BBC, which makes the same point in greater detail. Some extracts:

Had the demographic experts worked at the grass-roots instead of imposing solutions from above, suggests Adrienne Germain, formerly of the Ford Foundation and then the International Women’s Health Coalition, they might have achieved a better picture of the dilemmas facing women in poor, rural communities.

“Not to have a full set of health services meant women were either unable to use family planning, or unwilling to – because they could still expect half their kids to die by the age of five,” she says.

Western experts and local elites in the developing world soon imposed targets for reductions in family size, and used military analogies to drive home the urgency, says Matthew Connelly, a historian of population control at Columbia University in New York.

“They spoke of a war on population growth, fought with contraceptive weapons,” he says. “The war would entail sacrifices, and collateral damage.”

Such language betrayed a lack of empathy with their subjects, says Ms Germain: “People didn’t talk about people. They talked of acceptors and users of family planning.”

Today’s record-breaking global population hides a marked long-term trend towards lower birth rates, as urbanisation, better health care, education and access to family planning all affect women’s choices.

With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa and some of the poorest parts of India, we are now having fewer children than we once did – in some cases, failing even to replace ourselves in the next generation. And although total numbers are set to rise still further, the peak is now in sight.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist