Foreign Aid

Population prophets well behind the people

Patricia Adams
The London Free Press
January 28, 1995

The world does not have too many people – it does have too many ill-conceived mega-projects that have created pockets of grief.The London Free Press.

About the Author Patricia Adams is executive director of Toronto-based Probe International, a project of Energy Probe Research Foundation. She is author of In The Name Of Progress (Earthscan, 1991), and of Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption And The Third World’s Environmental Legacy (Earthscan, 1991).


“In case after case of ill-advised development schemes, people who once amply provided for themselves and their neighbours became destitute.”

The world does not have too many people – it does have too many ill-conceived mega-projects that have created pockets of grief.

If the tiny country of Laos had the same population density as the city of Manhattan, we could all live there.

The globe’s entire 5.7 billion population would have more space per person than do Manhattan residents, who pride themselves on living in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities. The space outside Laos – virtually the entire globe — would then be available for farming, mining, and whatever else our Laotian populace required.

Of course, not everyone should move to Laos. Nor does everyone want to live at Manhattan densities. But relentless population propaganda has led many people to believe the Third World is a teeming mass of people who must be controlled. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

China and India, which contain over one-third of the world’s population, are often cited as the worst source of the world’s population problem. Yet India’s density is lower than England’s, and China’s density is one-third that of England’s.

BLUNDER: Why do so many international bureaucrats and government planners complain about the population crisis? Because they do not want to admit that the billions of dollars spent on development assistance over the past 50 years has been an abject failure. Instead, they claim their policies have worked wonders in many Third World countries, increasing production and creating greater economic pies for their citizens to consume. But the citizens foiled their plans with even greater population increases, shrinking the size of the pie per person. If the population had grown less, these planners argue, we would have seen that their policies had worked.

In fact, nothing has done more to undermine the ability of Third World populations to feed and support themselves than the billions spent on mega-project development. Vast uneconomic mining schemes in the Amazon poisoned watersheds and devastated native economies, poorly drained irrigation systems have waterlogged the land they were meant to improve, the logging and deforestation of the world’s tropical rain forests ended sustainable forestry practices and led to erosion and destruction of downstream agricultural systems, hydro mega-dams on all the major rivers and most smaller ones flooded millions off the richest farmland on Earth, creating mass populations of refugees. In case after case of ill-advised development schemes, people who once amply provided for themselves and their neighbours became destitute.

SIMPLISTIC CLAIM: The hunger and poverty that still plague many parts of the Third World have nothing to do with the simplistic claim that land shortages cause food shortages. Despite all the destruction by international agencies of fisheries and rich agricultural lands, more food is being produced than ever before, in rich and poor countries alike. India, with 1.5 times as much arable land per person as Britain, is self-sufficient in rice. China is the world’s largest producer of both wheat and rice, the second-largest producer of corn, and the forth-largest producer of soybeans. China’s grain stockpiles total about twice the amount held in the rest of the world.

Most of the world’s people are better fed today than at any time in history, consuming more per person than ever before. The problems are not global in scale, but local.

Where tragedy in the Third World has hit hardest – Africa – is also, ironically, where population densities are relatively low – less than one-tenth that of India. The cause of the brutal starvation in Rwanda recently, or elsewhere several years ago, is almost always war or repression of various kinds. In Ethiopia, for example, millions were unable to survive the drought in the mid-1980s, as they had done for many previous generations, because their stores had been confiscated by the government, their lands nationalized, and their normal agricultural systems thrown into disarray by a harassing government that dictated who would plant what and when. Having been deprived of the resources they had husbanded sustainably for generations, Ethiopians were then accused of destroying them. Armies of aid agency experts soon followed with their ill-considered recommendation that millions be removed from their lands holus-bolus and relocated on those of other innocent communities.

ALREADY PLANNED: Population-control advocates would have us believe Third World fertility rates are high because education levels in these countries are low. In fact Third World families plan on the number of children to have. Farm or forest families, for example, know how many children their land can sustainably support, and that too few or too many will lead the family to be worse off. Under Spanish occupation, in the 1700s and 1800s, the Totonicapans of Guatemala were forced to convert food crop lands to sheep pasture to pay a colonial wool tax. Knowing the land could not support both their population and the colonial sheep, the Totonicapans gradually reduced their population to less than half of what it was. Today, with the Spanish long gone, the Totonicapan population has increased by 80 per cent and their economy, which is based on a four-century old furniture industry and a skilfully managed forest, is thriving.

At different times, different societies have, high or low rates of population growth. Quebec’s rate – considered too high by the intelligentsia just a generation ago – is now a concern to the nationalist intelligentsia who believe it is too low. People in the growing number of Third World countries with stable or declining populations – Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Cuba and Martinique – have decided, they need fewer children.

What population pundits don’t acknowledge is that people – whether in the Third World or the industrialized world – make deliberate choices about their family sizes based on many, many factors, including available resources. With rare exceptions, those choices are better informed than the self-interested recommendations of remote international population modellers.

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