London -- Every generation has
doomsayers who claim that the world is overpopulated -- usually
with images of mass famine and starvation, generalised warfare
and the decline and fall of civilisations. Long before the
Reverend Malthus declared in the late 18th Century that the
human population would inevitably increase faster than we could
produce food to feed it -- resulting in wars, famine and
pestilence -- the Greek philosopher Aristotle urged legislators
to calculate and enforce a "convenient number of citizens."
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
yearly report for 2006, released this week, focuses on female
migrants and human trafficking. Once again, the UNFPA has
managed to produce a report on an important issue without
shedding any new light on what makes people migrate to cities or
The UNFPA was set up in 1979 to address
concerns about the world’s "overpopulation" -- especially in
poor countries. While predictions about overpopulation have
proved wildly inaccurate, the UN continues to provide technical
and financial support to governments in over 150 countries to
control population growth. This is concealed under laudable aims
of gender equality and reproductive health even though family
size should be an individual choice, not the remit of
Policymakers at all levels of government
continue to fret about population growth and its attendant
effects, such as urbanisation and migration. They worry that the
earth does not have enough raw materials, food, water or even
space to create more cities. Numerous UN reports in recent years
have portrayed the health risks associated with increasing
urbanisation, especially the growth of slums -- typically
claiming that these risks are greater than those which migrants
sought to escape in the first place.
People who migrate presumably do so
because they believe the many risks are worth the potential
gains. But the reasons rarely have to do with even local
"overpopulation". All too often, migrants seek to escape bleak
prospects created by kleptocratic political regimes whose
policies collectively prevent hundreds of millions of people
from attaining material prosperity.
Sadly, the UN seems blind to these causes
of migration. A rational analysis would examine what motivates
people to leave their farms, villages or countries. Instead, the
UN erroneously treats population growth and migration as the
very causes of poverty, leading it to conclude erroneously that
population control is a way to reduce poverty.
Many of the images commonly associated with
overpopulation -- famine, disease, lack of sanitation and clean
water, environmental degradation -- are actually symptoms of
poverty and the absence of foundations such as property rights.
Such images from Africa are frequently invoked by governments
and NGOs as the cause of that continent’s problems, yet the
reality is that most African countries actually have average or
below-average population densities. In contrast, no one claims
that Monaco or the Netherlands -- two of the world’s most
densely populated and wealthiest countries -- are overpopulated.
Indeed, famines rarely occur for
ecological or demographic reasons. Whether in Zimbabwe
(2002-2006), Niger (2005), Sudan (1998), Ethiopia (1984) or
elsewhere, food crises and famines are a consequence of meddling
government -- often in countries that have low population
The same applies to other alleged symptoms
of overpopulation. Conventional wisdom suggests that the world
is running out of water, food, living and farming space and raw
materials. On the contrary, during the peak of the world’s
population growth -- over the 20th century -- both living
standards and food production far outstripped population growth.
Most people in the world now live healthier, wealthier and
longer lives than ever before.
Put simply, there is no causal
relationship between population density and poverty -- and
measures intended to curb population growth will not end poverty
or alleviate its symptoms. Government policies in many poor
countries have penalised the poor, especially in countries which
lack property rights and the rule of law. The absence of these
institutions enables bureaucrats at all levels to exact bribes
from the poor. When combined with heavy regulations and taxes,
this undermines entrepreneurship and commerce.
The only way to eliminate poverty and to
enable sustainable use of resources, both natural and human, is
to allow people to generate prosperity for themselves and their
families. Instead of engaging in population control, governments
must create an enabling environment of stable market
institutions, allowing all to benefit from their hard work, to
make their own decisions and to prosper.
Human beings are ingenious and
entrepreneurial. Each and every one deserves to be able to
pursue a happier, healthier and longer life. Coercive population
control is a cowardly measure that fails to address the real
problems that create poverty. If governments want to help end
poverty, they should get out of the way.
Caroline Boin is a Research Fellow in
the Environment Programme at International Policy Network, an
educational charity based in London.