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The Challenge of Population Growth

By       Message Mahfuz R. Chowdhury     Permalink
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The world's population reached six and a half billion in 2006, and is quickly approaching 7 billion. It appears to be increasing at a rate of about 6.5 million a month or 78 million a year. From a purely mathematical point of view, at the current growth rate of 1.16 per cent per year, the world's population will double in 60 years. However, it is being projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 (as per the United Nations). If this projection holds, it would be an improvement over an earlier forty-year period (1960 to 2000) during which the population of the world practically doubled, from 3 to 6 billion.

The key point here is that the world's population keeps growing and will continue to grow unless there is a conscious effort by us to limit its growth, or nature imposes some kind of control (like the recent earthquake in China, or the cyclones and tsunami in South and Southeast Asia).

Social scientists from time to time have pondered over the problem of population growth, and rendered their individual opinions on it. Thomas Malthus, an English economist, gained fame by bringing the problem of population growth to the forefront in 1798. His central argument was that population grows at a geometric rate while food output grows at an arithmetic rate, and that makes food scarcity inevitable. His theory was later dismissed for promoting pessimism on the ground that it failed to consider technological advances in agriculture and food production.

To be sure, technology has achieved miracles and brought enormous successes in innumerable areas, especially in information technology. In terms of agriculture or food production, the result is also astounding. By applying modern technology with improved seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and machinery, it may now be conceivable that a country like the United States could produce enough food to feed the whole world. But the reality is not only different, it also is quite agonizing. As has been noted in the reports of the United Nations, World Bank and World Factbook, there are now over three billion people in the world who live in abject poverty, and a billion or about one third of them continue to suffer from severe starvation and malnutrition.

It should, therefore, be obvious that the burden of population growth basically lies with the poor countries. In developed countries, where the unemployment rate is low and future job opportunities are high, population levels aren't growing, and some countries even face shrinking populations. Some of these low growth countries are trying to encourage their citizens to become more family oriented and raise more children so that future labor shortages could be averted and their pay-as-you-go social security systems, in which pension supplements are financed by taxes on workers, could be sustained.

However, the situation in developing countries is quite the opposite. There the unemployment rates are extremely high-in some cases as high as 60 percent-and they don't have enough resources to provide their citizens with even the bare necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter, let alone creating sufficient job opportunities. Since they can't take care of the people they already have, any increase in population simply brings an extra burden on them. But no matter what, more and more people keep filling up these countries every day, month, and year.

For a country like India, which has a population of 1.15 billion, this means preparing dinner for an extra 50,000 people every single night of the year. And for a poor country like Ethiopia, with a per capita GDP of only $800 a year and a population growth rate of 2.23 per cent, it means over 4,700 additional mouths to feed every day.

One important factor that plays a key role in population growth is the level of education. The higher the level of education of people, the less they tend to grow. The major reason is that an educated person is apt to delay marriage or having a child until a steady income has been secured. The education levels in the affluent societies being high, their growth rates have fallen. As both parents are often busy with their careers, they have little time or interest in nurturing too many kids. In this regard, education of girls is especially important, argues economist Jeffrey Sachs in his book - Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, 2008.

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The growth rate among educated people in the developing countries has also come down to a considerable extent. But the growth rate among the underprivileged people who continue to constitute a huge majority remains high. Since the poor people have no steady income (some practically live hand to mouth), they customarily want more children as security and support in old age. They usually get married very early and produce children that they can't educate or even support. The great irony is that the children born in such a situation tend to breed more of the same year after year. So the reduction in population growth among educated people in the developing countries is being more than compensated by the increase among the underprivileged. Naturally, because of their lack of proper resources, population increase in poor countries is seen as a big curse and a serious hindrance to their economic expansion.

Take the example of Bangladesh, the seventh largest country in the world in population. By every measure the country has made improvements in education, healthcare, and most importantly achieved a respectable economic growth rate of, on average, 5 per cent annually in recent years. Yet, the country's poverty level has not come down, and studies show that in real terms it has gone up. In addition to the massive corruption in the country, the main reason for this is the high growth rate among its underprivileged population. The country adds about 3 million to its population every year, where the density of population is already one of the highest in the world. At the current growth rate of 2.02 per cent, per the World Factbook (a lower growth rate is quoted in other reports) the country's population of 150 million is likely to double in 35 years. This will be very similar to the current U.S. population living within the confines of the state of Wisconsin - a state the size of Bangladesh.

Additionally, Bangladesh is a low lying country, and most of its land mass is close to the sea level. As the sea level rises because of the effect of global warming, it is expected that half of the country will be submerged under water in the next 50 or so years. In fact, not only Bangladesh, the fate of many other low lying but heavily populated areas or countries of the world like Bangladesh will be the same when the sea level rises. Now, imagine the inevitable crisis such a situation would create!

The adverse effect of climate change is no longer a theory. Clear evidence of it is being presented in various empirical studies including those of the United Nations. It is believed to have already affected us in one vital area – the world food supply. Lack of rainfall or drought condition in farmlands of Australia and elsewhere and excessive rainfall in other places of the world in recent years have significantly reduced food production. The latest massive flooding in the farmlands of the United States might also be attributed to the effect of climate change.

Rice is one of the staple foods of the world. The rice exporting countries have since curtailed or stopped exporting rice altogether. Not only rice, the shortage in other staples such as corn and soybean (many believe their increased diversion to the production of bio-fuel has made the already bad situation even worse) is being gravely felt globally. The massive food shortage in the world has created serious havoc everywhere, and many developing countries are now struggling to meet the challenge of food shortages. One government, namely Haiti's, fell because it failed to avert food shortages.

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The World Bank's report on the supply of food suggests that massive starvation in developing countries cannot be averted unless developed countries make a concerted effort to increase food production.

Thus, the challenge of population growth is not imaginary but real for developing countries. In fact, the prospect of their achieving meaningful economic expansion seems to hinge in great part on their ability to limit population growth, especially among the underprivileged. Realizing this fact well, China has taken the most drastic measure – restricting the number of children per family to just one. China is in a unique situation to adopt such a policy. Even though it has embraced a capitalist economy, its Communist Party continues to exercise total control over government policy. On the other hand, China has effectively instituted a social security system for the elderly. As a result of China's population policy, the country is soon expected to slip down to the second place in population after India.

However, social scientists are worried that China's one child policy might also create a serious population imbalance between men and women since most parents prefer a male child over a female child, which, by the way, is still a common phenomenon in developing countries. Currently 119 boys are born in China for every 100 girls. Much of this is the result of the one-child policy and the availability of technology that enables the determination of the sex of the fetus and the availability of selective abortion. There are apparently 18 million more males of marriage age than females, and so the continual increase in the shortfall of women will only lead to increases in social unrest, sex crimes, prostitution, etc. Jeffrey Sachs in his aforementioned book emphasizes that state investment in the education of girls can reduce parental bias against female children.

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Mahfuz R. Chowdhury is a Professor of Economics at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and Farmingdale University, New York. He has wide ranging experience in international business and commerce. He is a creative writer and published a book (more...)
 

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