But we don’t have time

With kind permission from Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or FoodFirst.org as it is also known), chapter 3 of World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998) has been reproduced and posted here. Due to the length of the chapter, it has been split into sub pages on this site.

In presenting the essence of our thesis-that the best way to lower fertility is to reduce poverty-to concerned audiences over the years, at least one questioner will invariably respond, "All well and good, but we don't have time! We can't wait for societywide change benefiting the poor. That takes too long. The population bomb is exploding now."49

While the bomb has been largely defused, the implication remains that to bring growth down more rapidly we should do the only thing we can do now: fund and promote family planning programs among fast-growing populations. The rest is pie in the sky.

Our response is twofold. First, demographers will tell you that even if average family size in a fast-growing society were cut by half tomorrow, its population would not stop growing until well into the next century. So every solution, including family planning programs, is a long-term one; there are no quick fixes. The second part of our answer is more surprising: simply providing birth control technology through family planning programs doesn't affect population growth all that much.

In 1984, D. J. Hernández, chief of the Marriage and Family Statistics Branch of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, reviewed all available research to determine the contribution of family planning programs to fertility decline. After examining the research on demographic change in eighty-three countries, he concluded that the best studies have found little net effect from family planning programs. Hernández observed that "perhaps as much as 10 percent but possibly as little as 3 percent of the cross-national variation in fertility change in the third world during the late 1960s and early 1970s was an independent effect of family planning programs."50

Naturally, Hernández was roundly attacked by family planning proponents. But even the study most cited by his critics, a 1978 overview of ninety-four third world countries, concluded that birth control programs alone accounted for only 15 to 20 percent of overall fertility decline, with largely social and economic factors accounting for the rest.51 Follow-up studies published by different researchers in 1994 came to the same conclusion as the original Hernández study: the contribution of family planning to fertility decline is negligible compared to the contribution of socioeconomic change.52

Our highlighting of these findings-which reveal a relatively small impact of family planning programs on population-does not mean that we belittle their potential value. Making contraceptives widely available and helping to reduce inhibitions against their use are critical to the extension of human freedom, especially the freedom of women to control their reproduction. But these findings do confirm that what is truly pie in the sky is the notion that population-growth rates can be brought down to replacement levels through a narrow focus on the delivery of contraceptive technology.

Although the experiences of some countries suggest that birth rates can fall while great economic inequalities remain, an overwhelmingly clear pattern emerges from worldwide demographic change. At the very least, critical advances in health, social security, and education must change the lives of the poor-especially the lives of poor women-before they can choose to have fewer children. Once people are motivated to have smaller families, family planning programs can quicken a decline in fertility, but that is all; they cannot initiate the decision to have smaller families.53

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  • Posted: Saturday, December 02, 2000

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