Thin on the Ground

Land Resources: Now and for the Future






363 000 people were born

154 000 died

World population increased by 209 000

Annual world population increase:
2008 77 M, 2009 80 M, 2010 78 M, 2011 76 M




What Women Want

The need for population policy

Problems of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation in developing countries will never be solved without greater efforts to check population increase. I have forcefully argued this in publications and on this site. Why are the for reduction of hunger and poverty, set at the Millennium, not being met, despite much national and international effort? Why is degradation of the land on which most poor people depend continuing? It is because efforts to develop agriculture and the rural sector are constantly nullified by population increase.

Population policy: a political non-starter

But there is a problem. To advocate population reduction, or even to talk of population policy, is political suicide. No politician is going to stand up and say, "We need fewer people in our country". Still less is it acceptable for Westerners to tell developing countries that they should do something about their population increase. This would be regarded as the worst form of paternalism or 'neo-colonialism'.

A way out: give women what they want

There is a way out of this dilemma.

Go into a family planning clinic in the developing world. No-one is talking about population. What do the women there want? They want to avoid having a child when they don't want one. When they are ready for it, they want to have a healthy baby. And they want to stay healthy themselves, avoiding complications in pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

These objectives will not be attained unless women can control their own lives. For this they must have education, and a rightful position in the community, to make up their own minds. Where women's status approaches that of men, reproduction rates are everywhere close to the sustainable, replacement, level.

This was the package of ethically acceptable measures put forward at the 1993 UN Population conference. These were: provision of access to family planning services for all, improvements in reproductive health, and improving the education and status of women.

Yet to date, international investment in family planning services, at one time a priority for the US and UK (whre it was once called the "Children by choice not chance" policy), has recently taken a low priority. We have lost 15 years in which investment to reduce population increase could have been started.

The new way of looking at it

There is a new way of looking at the situation (a new paradigm if you like the term). Stand the previous argument on its head:

The former way of looking at it:

  • We must reduce the rate of population increase.
  • So we need to improve women's status and education, and to provide reproductive health and family planning services for all.

The new way of looking at it:

  • Work to improve women's status and education, and to provide them with reproductive health and family planning services.
  • Then reduction in the rate of population growth will follow.




To learn more, read Robert Engleman's book, More: Population, Nature, and what women want. In family planning clinics, he says, "The pervasive message is that staying healthy and making life plans are good...So here's help." Read a Worldwatch magazine special issue, Women: population's once and future key. Look at the arguments by People and Planet and UNFPA.

The need to make population policy an integral part of development policy is discussed in Chapter 14, Population, Poverty and Conflict, of Land Resources: Now and for the Future, and in the final chapter of Thin on the Ground.

September 2008

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