Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The fallacy of family planning in developing countries

Yesterday, with thousand of other people in 82 locations around the world, I attended a TED x Change meeting. This was a special event organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and TED, marking the anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 
I attended the event in Chapel Hill where it was hosted by IntraHealth International, an NGO based in town.

Melinda Gates was the first speaker. She impressed me by the clarity and innovative thinking of her ideas. She made the point that if Coca-Cola was able to distribute their drinks anywhere in the world, we should be able to learn from that to address health problems.

The next speaker was Hans Rosling, a brilliant researcher from Sweden. He is using a great visualization technology that he developed that transforms development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear, intuitive and even playful. This software is open source and available here.

I probably misunderstood some "strange" ideas that he shared, so my next description has to be taken with caution, as he is much smarter than I'm. What I don't agree with is an idea that he presented and that I have seen presented by many others in the Western or "developed" world (see my view on the reality of "developed" in my posting of  September 13, 2010).

So here is what I understood from some part of his presentation. He showed a chart where on the horizontal axis you could see the measure of the average number of children per family going from zero to eight. On the vertical axis you could see the children mortality going from zero to hundreds per thousand births. Then on the chart you would see circles representing the different countries where the size of the circle was proportional to the population size and its position was based on the child mortality and average family size in that country. He then showed that there were two major groupings on the chart. The African countries were mostly on the top right of the chart meaning that they had large (more than 4) number of children per family on average and that the infant mortality was high, in the hundreds per thousand birth. Then he showed that most of the other countries (the developed world) would be in the bottom left of the chart, meaning they would have less (less than 3) children per family and a much lower infant mortality.

So this would mean that less children per family would lead to lower mortality!!! I don't think that there is a direct link here. We know that in developed countries life expectancy goes up with the average income (GDP/capita). But so does the cost of children, and therefore naturally families tend to have less children. In the developing world, because of the domination of unskilled labor in the production function, the child represents an early economic value, while in developed countries he acquires value only at the end of a long and expensive training.  In modern societies, the child never contributes more than he costs. Better, he is expensive and brings nothing.  To allow him to integrate into a technical economy, parents need to provide him with a lengthy and costly training.  And once this training is acquired, no sociological imperative compels him to surrender the fruits of his work. At the contrary in traditional societies in the developing world the social structure is characterized by the predominance of the extended family, which includes all members of the same lineage, compelled to a series of several obligations, under the rule of an undisputed chieftain.  The requirements governing the operation of the clan provide parents with the personal enjoyment of the work of youngsters, which are in a way their pension scheme. This reason accounts more for a difference in procreative behavior between developed and developing countries.

Another idea shared by Hans Rosling is that the link of lower child mortality to lower average family size should justify the importance of family planning, the "most important way" to address the problem of child mortality. He also added that family planning would also solve many of the other MDGs. Since it would lower the mortality, children would actually survive to go to school addressing MDG #2 (achieve universal primary education). Having less children would reduce world population, saving the planet from exploitation of limited resources and solving MDG # 7 (ensure environment sustainability). And the audience applauded frenetically!!!

What I'm uncomfortable with here is that it is somewhat implying that a large African family is more dangerous for the environment sustainability than a small family in developed countries. This was shocking to me, even if he did not put it exactly that way. We know how developed countries are contributing to the world pollution compared to developing countries. It seems to me that the push for family planning by developed countries is more about their concern to have to share the limited resources of planet earth with the growing population of developing countries and to protect their existing way of life.

Finally what is the moral basis for developed countries to tell families in developing countries how many children they should have? The fallacy of these policies is very well described by Fernand Bezy in "Démographie et sous-développement : propos antimalthusiens" You can find this document in the Fernand Bezy Web Site (there is a link to it in this blog). You will find it in the bibliography section (document REF8) both in French and English version.

 See you later aligator.....

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