Chris Blattman

Mr. Malthus goes to Nigeria

In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people — a population about as big as that of the present-day United States — will live in a country the size of Arizona and New Mexico.

…“Population is key,” said Peter Ogunjuyigbe, a demographer at Obafemi Awolowo University in the small central city of Ile-Ife. “If you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing — there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.”

That is Elisabeth Rosenthal reporting on the front page of Sunday’s NY Times.

Ever year or so the Times likes to run a Chicken Little story, warning us of the impending demographic and youth time bomb. I’m willing to bet the tradition goes back several decades. The bomb, oddly enough, is still ticking.

What about Asia and Latin America, where previous demographic crises have been predicted?

Elsewhere in the developing world, in Asia and Latin America, fertility rates have fallen sharply in recent generations and now resemble those in the United States — just above two children per woman. That transformation was driven in each country by a mix of educational and employment opportunities for women, access to contraception, urbanization and an evolving middle class. Whether similar forces will defuse the population bomb in sub-Sarahan Africa is unclear.

Is the lesson we should draw that Africa is different?

For the historical and economic view, why development tends to precede population change (and not the other way around), and a sense of what population policies worked (or, better still, which ones we should really stop recommending) I can do not better than point you to Bill Easterly’s Elusive Question for Growth (Chapter 5), or Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics (also Chapter 5). I wish I had ungated essays to give you. But if you have any interest in development, books are essential reads and will save you from falling for the mistakes of the past.

Meanwhile, Charles Kenny has a Foreign Policy piece, and short paper, on why we should learn to love the population bomb (thanks to @RovingBandit). And @WhyNationsFail point me to an entertaining analysis of the Malthusian view.

Other reader responses to the sky is falling?

11 Responses

  1. I think one way to ground discussions of population growth is to look at statistics for unmet need for contraception. Millions of women have a personal desire to limit and space their children but do not have adequate access to contraceptives. Like other health services, contraceptive supply faces all the same infrastructure, financial, human resource constraints in making them available where desired. My point being that while generating demand for contraceptives is a big issue in that it faces barriers of gender and cultural norms, there is a great deal of existing demand that simply is not being met on the supply side.

  2. ‘Development,’ in general and as a contraceptive, bundles in a lot of possible changes that could spur fertility decline. It is probably useful to unpack ‘development,’ as not all of these changes are necessarily part of development efforts — declines in child mortality, compulsory education, and female opportunities for employment all play an important role in changing fertility desires. And, of course, family planning efforts play a role in making technologies available to act on those changed desires; such efforts and various media may also have a role in setting social norms around family size and use of contraception, regardless of what other sort of development efforts are going on. It doesn’t seem sufficient to say that ‘development’ will take care of the problem. Also, I’ll echo George Darroch’s point that Iran presents a case worth checking out.

  3. Hi Thorstein, great to see you back – long time no see …

    “There is a big country in Asia, starts with the letter C, which has done pretty well while limiting population…”

    Indeed, and they are doing a lot of conspicuous consumption. If you subtract C-country’s statistics from MDG results, the rest look pretty unimpressive. So the conclusion is — encourage one-party states, severely limit personal freedom and burn huge amounts of polluting and planet-destroying fossil fuels. That’s the way to grow and limit population.

    I’m afraid the development-population argument just won’t wash anymore because it is predicated on cheap energy and unlimited resources. We are staring at a growing energy gap that won’t be filled for many years, during which time developing countries will continue to expand their populations.

  4. Re: The Kenny Paper: see he’s turned me off already in the first line. He writes “The key features of the Malthusian Model are (i) income determines population growth”. But — stop — that’s completely unnecessary for Malthusian forces to be at work.

    Since his essay purports to be about Malthusian Economics, I thought he would have lots of charts about agricultural production, yield growth, and acreage growth in africa, in addition to statistics showing on how iodine and protein deficiency have long-ceased to be relevant issues. Instead, I do not see a single chart about either nutrition or agricultural production. And yes, that means the rest of his paper isn’t worth reading.

    Even more troubling, I fire up my WDI_GDF, and I see decades where sub-saharan Africa didn’t grow at all in terms of GDP per capita. From 1974 to 2006, developing sub-saharan africa grew at the fast clip of 0.00% according to World Bank statistics.

    The World Bank also seems to think that Malnutrition is widely prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Can you do a post on what leads you to believe it’s a non-issue?

  5. “development tends to precede population change (and not the other way around)”

    There is a big country in Asia, starts with the letter C, which has done pretty well while limiting population…

    Although I actually don’t think that was the key policy in China, I don’t see how slower population growth isn’t generally a boon for nutrition and the environment. In much of Africa, when population growth is 2.5-3.0%, and yield growth in agriculture is roughly 1%, how does the math work? I guess you can expand acreage, and you can import food, but I don’t see how you can dismiss it. Does Africa really have no problems with overfishing, overgrazing, overhunting, pollution, or undernutrition?

  6. I don’t think any discussion about fertility is complete without mention of China and Iran. Literature on China is well-known and abundant, so I won’t drop anything here, but Iran is rather neglected considering how remarkable its changes were. Its TFR drop from 7.0 to 2.1 within 20 years is perhaps the fastest in history. Abbasi-Shavazi offers an excellent paper (adapted into an even better book).

    It illustrates that _with an anti-natalist government policy_ large drops in TFR are sustainable in short periods. Sustained high TFRs (against predictions) elsewhere demonstrate that drops can’t be taken for granted, nor should they be assumed as axiomatic.

    There are a lot of other areas of discussion here, and a large number of implicit assumption that are neither stated nor defended, and if I have time I’ll come back to discuss a few.

  7. better to talk about population growth as related to proportion of land (rights/use/etc.) for each human…imagine…a human being born that does not have a space to be at for self….

  8. I was actually just debating that article with my colleagues at the American University of Nigeria today. With your gentle encouragement, I’ve written a few of my notes from my development course on the subject at my blog.

  9. I’m glad that Kenny’s FP article acknowledges concerns about sustainability, albeit briefly and at the end. Malthus is quite commonly used as a straw man. Economists often dispose of Malthus’s outdated model (with ample justification), and all-too-often then go on to claim that concerns about the global environment are thereby overblown and regressive (without ample justification).

    Kenny also makes the point that it is overconsumption, rather than overpopulation, which should concern us. He is correct inasmuch as to say that the environmental footprint of an average African is far smaller than an average American. But if we hope to improve living standards for the worlds poorest, and unless we can reduce the environmental footprint of consumption dramatically, it is hard to imagine a world in which 10 billion people can survive and thrive without degrading the resource base that sustains them — ultimately undermining development.

    Given looming climate and other environmental change, I think its safe to say that we’re already heading down such a road. And given that people have never before had so much influence on the natural processes that sustain us, the past is probably not a good guide to the future. Furthermore, the impacts of global environmental change are likely to be quite regressive.

    I’m not necessarily getting behind any particular solutions here, and I certainly don’t blame the poor for global environmental problems. Just the opposite. But cheering global population growth seems like one is simply taking the rebuttal of a bad argument (Malthusianism as originally outlined) way way too far.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog