By Donella Meadows
–May 26, 1994–
Journal articles full of statistics are not usually causes of concern at the State Department, but a recent one about family planning was controversial enough to make one Clinton appointee ask another to remove his name from it. That was a shame, because both protagonists — Timothy Wirth, Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, and Lawrence Summers, Undersecretary of Treasury for International Affairs — are right.
The article, in the March 1994 Population and Development Review, makes the case that family planning programs in the Third World have only a marginal impact on birth rates. The listed author, Lant H. Pritchett of the World Bank, did the analysis with Summers, who was then also at the Bank. Wirth asked Summers to remove his name because the Clinton administration is pushing family planning. The issue is hot just now as final documents are prepared for September’s world population summit in Cairo.
In the 1950s, when there were about half as many people in the world as there are now, it seemed obvious that the proliferating poor needed birth control. “The rich get rich and the poor get children” was already a familiar saying. Surely poor people would not have so many kids if they could help it. The solution was to spread contraceptives around the world. These programs were seen as integral to ending poverty, they were kindly meant, technocratic, culturally naive, and often resented.
By the time of the first U.N. Population Conference in 1974, the poor countries had a counter-argument. We have many children, they said, for good reasons. A child is the only productive factor available to a family without capital, without education. Children can help on the farm, children can go to work in the city, children will support you in your old age, and children cost almost nothing if you don’t have to equip them with designer sneakers, braces, and college educations.
So if you want birth rates to come down, said the Third World and many sympathizers in the First World, don’t give the poor condoms and pills. Give them economic opportunity.
Development is the best contraceptive. Contraceptives are the best contraceptive. The argument has raged for more than 20 years. During the Reagan administration the United States government pulled out of the discussion, and out of family planning, by declaring that population is no problem. The Clinton administration put Tim Wirth in charge of reversing that position.
As if in endorsement, an article in last December’s Scientific American gave an impressive set of numbers to show that modern contraceptives have been the major factor responsible for observed declines in Third World birth rates. Now Pritchett and Summers have spent 45 pages with 82 footnotes statistically blowing that argument out of the water.
Personally I’m not convinced by the analyses in either of these contradictory articles. As is often the case, this issue is so tangled that statistics can prove anything, or nothing. When statistics fail, try common sense.
Family size is a function of two things; how many children are wanted and how well couples can manage to get what they want. Every culture knows what causes babies and how not to have one. The traditional ways not to have babies (abstinence, abortion, infanticide) are no fun, repulsive, forbidden, but effective. Birth rates came down in industrializing Europe long before there were pills or IUDs. Conversely, pills and IUDs are of little interest to families whose economies and cultures give them logical reasons to have eight children.
So it makes sense to work hard on what causes families to want fewer children, That seems to be development, and especially the education, employment, and empowerment of women.
But — there are a lot of buts. Wanting children is rarely a clear yes/no matter. For the big maybe range, an easy, cheap, morally acceptable way of preventing a baby could make a significant difference. Family planning programs, especially when they are run by women for women, ARE female education and empowerment. They communicate all sorts of information, including the idea that having a child is something a woman can choose, considering not just the family labor supply and the egos of her husband and mother-in-law, but also her own health and the welfare of her existing children.
Technologies that make fertility control easier can’t help but increase the use of fertility control. We know now how to supply these technologies in culturally respectful ways — better, in fact, than we know how to supply development. Many countries are asking for family planning. It costs little. Condoms prevent not just babies, but AIDS. Why have a fight between development and contraceptives, when both are so clearly needed?
Of course the fight is not really about merit, it’s about dollars. Both development and family planning programs are greatly underfunded. This year 93 million people will be added to the world’s population, almost all of them born into poverty. No plan for improving the environment, ending hunger, supplying energy, controlling diseases, or preserving peace can succeed unless that number is brought down fast. Yet we spend less than a nickel on development and family planning for every dollar we spend on what we call defense.
Economic opportunity gives poor families other paths to security than having children. Family planning gives them affordable, acceptable ways to achieve that lower desired family size. One is the motor for fertility reduction, the other is the gas. Both are needed urgently, for the sake of both the rich and the poor.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994