Why rapid population growth is a problem
Population growth remains rapid in many poor countries. For example, the population of West Africa is expanding at an annual rate of 2.6 % and is expected to more than quadruple in size by the end of the century. The projected addition of one billion people to the region’s current population of 320 million is an obstacle to development and makes it difficult to be optimistic about the future of this and other regions with similar demographic and socio-economic conditions. There are several reasons for concern:
-Environmental degradation: Global environmental problems (e.g. climate change, decreasing biodiversity) receive much media and scientific attention in the West, but are not a high priority for policy makers in poor countries, except where substantial populations live in low lying coastal areas (e.g. Bangladesh). Instead, most developing countries have critical local environmental problems that require urgent attention, including shortages of fresh water and arable land, and water, air and soil pollution. Environmental stresses have been building up over time and are likely to become much more severe as populations and economies expand further.
-Economic stagnation: In poor societies population sizes often double in two or three decades. As a result, industries, housing, schools, health clinics, and infrastructure must be built at least at the same rate in order for standards of living not to deteriorate. Many communities are unable to keep up, as is evident from high unemployment rates, explosive growth of slum populations, overcrowded schools and health facilities and dilapidated public infrastructure (i.e. roads, bridges, sewage systems, piped water, electric power, etc)
In addition, rapidly growing populations have young age structures. The resulting low ratio of workers to dependents depresses standards of living and makes it more difficult to invest in the physical and human capital needed for expanding economies. The size of the formal labour force is also limited by the need for women to remain at home to take care of large families.
-Maternal mortality: High birth rates imply frequent childbearing throughout the potential reproductive years. Each pregnancy is associated with a risk of death, and this risk rises with age of the mother and the order of the pregnancy. In the least developed countries the life-time risk of dying from pregnancy related causes is near 5% and many more women suffer related health problems or disabilities.
-Political unrest: Half the population of the least developed world is under age 20. Unemployment is widespread because economies are unable to provide jobs for the rapidly growing number of young people seeking to enter the labour force. Vigorous competition for limited numbers of jobs leads to low wages which in turn contributes to poverty. The presence of large numbers of unemployed and frustrated males likely contributes to socio-economic tensions, high crime rates and political instability.
Of course, population growth is not the only or even the main cause of poverty in the developing world. Nevertheless population growth has pervasive adverse effects on societies and hinders development efforts. Poor countries would be better off with lower population growth rates.
I agree with John Bongaarts that rapid population growth continues to pose serious challenges for many poor countries, especially in Africa. John provides a clear statement of several of these important challenges. John argues that these countries’ rapid population growth makes it difficult to be optimistic about their future. While I also worry about the future of the world’s poorest countries, their demographic conditions alone should not be viewed as preventing economic development. To see why, we need to put these conditions into a historical perspective.
The 2.6% annual population growth rate that John reports for West Africa is indeed very high and a cause for concern. It is important to keep in mind, however, that many middle income countries experienced similar growth rates. Brazil and Thailand, for example, had annual population growth rates of 3% per year in the 1950s and at least 2.6% per year in the 1960s. Both had over half their population under the age of 20 throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, similar to the percentage John reports for the poorest countries today. In spite of these demographic challenges, both countries have had strong economic performance. Brazil’s per capita income in 2011 was about 3.3 times its 1960 level; Thailand’s per capita income in 2011 was about 8.4 times its 1960 level.
Brazil and Thailand have both had large declines in fertility, a factor that has contributed to their economic success. But both had rapid growth of per capita income during the 1960s and 70s, a time when their populations were growing as fast as West Africa is growing today. And while Brazil and Thailand have been particularly successful, they are broadly representative of Latin America and Southeast Asia more generally.
There are two lessons here. First, the demographic challenges we see in the poorest countries today are similar to those experienced by other developing countries in the last 50 years. Second, it is by no means impossible to have rapid economic growth at the same time as rapid population growth. Africa’s high population growth may be more a symptom than a cause of poor economic performance, a theme I will return to in future entries.