May 10, 1995
If the tiny country of Laos had the same population density as the city of Manhattan, we would all be there–the globe’s entire 5.7 billion population, in fact, 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.
We aren’t suggesting, of course, that everyone move to Laos, or that everyone wants to live in Manhattan. But the recent explosion of population propaganda is leading many people to view the Third World as one teeming mass of people who must be controlled. Nothing could be further from the truth. China and India, which contain over one-third of the world’s population, are often cited as having the worst population problems. Yet India’s density is lower than England’s, and China’s density is one-third that of England.
Why do so many international bureaucrats and government planners complain about the population problem? Because they do not want to accept responsibility for having misspent hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars on development projects that are abject failures. Instead, they claim their policies 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 megaproject development. Vast uneconomic mining schemes in the Amazon poisoned watersheds and devastated native economies. The logging and deforestation of the world’s tropical rainforests ended sustainable forestry practices and led to erosion and downstream agricultural destruction. Hydro megadams on all the major rivers and most smaller ones flooded millions off the richest farmland on earth, creating mass populations of environmental refugees. In case after case of foreign aid and other development by international institutions, people became worse off. Ironically, population growth then often rose in response.(f.1)
In India’s rural areas, two or three children are generally considered necessary for a household’s survival: children help in tending livestock, carrying water, and in collecting fuel wood, dung, and other forms of energy. When deforestation or another environmental calamity adds to the workload–in some places journeys to gather fuel wood can take a full day–an additional worker, in the form of an additional child, then becomes necessary. Because women are the workhorses in Third World families, they stand to gain the most from additional offspring, which offsets the burden of bearing them.
Third World families, of course, also plan how many children to have in good times. Farm or forest families, for example, know how many children their land can sustainably support, and that too few or too many will mean that the family will be worse off. When people in the Third World need children less (as has been happening for many reasons), they logically decide to have fewer children.(f.2) Population growth rates have been dropping steadily for decades in the Third World: Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, southern India, China, Hong Kong, Cuba, and Martinique now have stable or declining populations.
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 and China are self-sufficient in rice. The Western world’s granaries are overflowing, leading to grain wars among Canada, the United States and Europe. Even Saudi Arabia is exporting wheat! 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 where population densities are relatively low: less than one-tenth that of India. The cause for the brutal starvation in Rwanda recently, or in Somalia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere several years ago, is almost always war, or repression of various kinds. Africa is poor because its leaders subjugate its peoples, because development agencies foist unsound development on them, and because Third World debt–which was incurred without the public’s approval–kept people poor.
The most densely populated regions of the world tend to be along bodies of water, such as the Yangtze River in China and the Ganges in India. People live along rivers because they provide transportation and irrigation water, while river deltas provide rich agricultural land and fisheries, allowing people to live in relative prosperity.
Short of war, nothing could cause greater havoc to Third World populations than to disrupt the ecologies and economies of these Third World breadbaskets. Yet that is exactly what the World Bank and other development banks have done through massive dams that have thrown these populations into upheaval by flooding them off their land.(f.3) In the past, World Bank hydro projects alone have displaced 10 million people, and the pace today is accelerating: the Three Gorges dam in China threatens to create a population migration nightmare by moving 1.3 million people off the Yangtze River, and the Narmada Project–a complex of 3,000 dams planned along the length of India’s Narmada River, threatens another one million.
To the great frustration of Third World citizens’ groups, most Westerners do not understand these facts-on-the-ground: when asked what the Third World’s number one problem is, Westerners generally cite the fictitious “population crisis.” These Third World groups know that as long as Western governments and international agencies like the World Bank are able to focus Westerners–who fund most of the Third World’s destruction–on imaginary problems the funding of more devastating development projects will continue. Third World citizens’ groups also want Western citizens to know that foreign aid-funded development has only bred dependence. The countries that receive the most foreign aid, in fact, are worse off than they were before the development dollars started flowing. While aid to Africa increased more than tenfold between 1970 and 1988, Africans are poorer. After $100 billion in investments, Africa’s economy shrank by 20%–the GNP of that entire continent compares to that of Belgium, which has a land mass of 1% the size of Africa.(f.4)
We must not let government aid agencies get away with blaming the people of the Third World for the governments’ failed attempts at development. Development won’t come to Africa and other poor parts of the Third World until people are empowered, and able to direct their development. That’s why Probe International has been working with grassroots citizens’ groups in the Third World to defend their customary rights to the land, forests, air, and water that they depend upon. Until these decentralized and democratic resource-use systems are recognized and enforced in law–systems that have sustained Third World populations for millennia–unaccountable development as practised by the World Bank and other government aid agencies will continue to undermine Third World populations and their environments.
(f.1) In the Name of Progress: the Underside of Foreign Aid, by Patricia Adams and Lawrence Solomon (Earthscan), 1991.
(f.2) Nicholas Eberstadt, “What You Won’t Hear at Cairo” in Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 1994.
(f.3) Damming the Rivers: The World Bank’s Lending for Large Dams, by Leonard Sklar and Patrick McCully, International Rivers Network. Working Paper 5, November 1994.
(f.4) Sub-Sabaran Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth, A Long-Term Perspective Study by the World Bank, Washington, 1989; also see “Africa, The Long Goodbye” by David Ewing Duncan, in The Atlantic, U.S., July 1990.
Patricia Adams is executive director of Probe International and the author of In the Name of Progress (Earthscan 1991) and Odious Debts (Earthscan 1991).
Categories: Foreign Aid