Mistaken Notions on Population Control

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BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
August 8, 2008
MISTAKEN NOTIONS ON POPULATION CONTROL
There are those who are lobbying for birth or population control whose motives are
suspect.
Among those are groups from the U.S. and other advanced countries who are
worried that the expanding populations of the newly emerging markets which include the
Philippines will no longer allow them to make use of the resources of other countries as they
keep their own natural resources intact for posterity. This was clearly the message of the
secret Kissinger report in the 1980s that was declassified later. Other lobby groups are the
multinational companies that will benefit from sales of artificial contraceptives.
Our
legislators should be careful that they do not become stooges of these vested interests.
I must admit, however, that there are legislators and other concerned citizens who are
sincerely interested in combating poverty through population control. What is wrong with
them is not their motivation but their diagnosis of the problem of poverty.
They are
advocating the wrong solution to a real problem.
For example, some of them are blaming the expanding population in the emerging
economies for the dramatic increase in the prices of fuel and food prices. They are wrong on
two counts. First, the high prices of fuel and food today are not due to very rapid increases in
population today. On the contrary, population growth is decelerating in all developing
countries and actually declining in developed countries. The high prices of commodities
today are due to dramatic increases in demand because of significant improvements in the
incomes of hundreds of millions of previously impoverished segments of populous countries
like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. This development is definitely
good news.
Prices of food products have risen, not because the world is running out of resources,
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but because international markets for food have been totally distorted over the last three
decades for two reasons. Because of these distortions, the supply for food is unable to
respond immediately to the increased demand. To address the problem of high food prices,
the direct solutions are not found in population control. On the side of the developed
countries like the U.S. and members of the European Union, an urgent solution is the removal
of the subsidies that they have granted to their agricultural sector, which subsidies have
distorted international markets, driving food prices to very low levels and prejudicing
hundreds of millions of poor farmers in the Third World who have been unable to sell their
products at profitable prices. Now that food prices are higher, there is absolutely no need for
these subsidies which have been the primary causes of the repeated failures of attempts of the
World Trade Organization (WTO) to reform the world market for commodities. This point
has been dramatized by the recent failure of the Doha round of the WTO.
The other major error as regards the agricultural sector has been the utter neglect of
infrastructures in the rural sector in most developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin
America, with the exception of a few countries like Thailand. Over the last three decades,
these countries had an irrational obsession with large-scale, capital-intensive industrialization
under the banner of self-sufficiency and nationalism. Massive resources were wasted on
inefficient and uncompetitive industries while the agricultural sector was made to languish
with little or no investments in such infrastructures as farm-to-market roads, irrigation
systems, post-harvest facilities and agricultural extension services. It is no coincidence that
in these countries, including the Philippines, mass poverty is fundamentally a rural
phenomenon.
Population control in no way addresses these two problems, i.e. distorted international
markets for food and the backward state of agriculture.
In fact, the very absence of
infrastructures in the countryside is a primary motivation for rural families to want to have
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numerous children who are needed as farmhands. It is inconceivable for a household in the
countryside to survive with only two children per household. Also in the Philippine context,
thanks to larger family sizes, each household not only can have sufficient hands to do the
work for daily subsistence but can also hope to send one or two to some foreign country as
overseas workers in order to supplement their meager incomes.
Direct solutions to the problem of poverty, such as reforming international agricultural
markets and heavy investments in rural infrastructure together with initiatives of civil society
in microfinance, improving the quality of public education, social housing such as the very
creative solution provided by the Gawad Kalinga movement, will help to significantly raise
incomes which, in turn, will reduce the fertility rate. Countries like Ireland, France, Spain,
Austria, Italy, Portugal, etc. have low fertility rates, not because they had State-sponsored
contraceptive programs, but because they had enlightened economic policies that enabled
their economies to grow rapidly. Rapid economic growth coupled with social policies to
redistribute incomes led subsequently to the reduction of the fertility rate. This is a lesson
our legislators have to learn. Distributing contraceptives for free does nothing to address the
poverty problem and may not even reduce the fertility rate. Addressing the problem of mass
poverty directly through market and social reforms will increase incomes and reduce fertility
rate.
Finally, reducing maternal mortality rate must be addressed also directly through
measures to help pregnant mothers have a safe delivery and not through preventing
motherhood. That is why we have to support all the programs of President Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo to ensure safe motherhood. Among other measures are the upgrade of hospitals to
extend obstetric, gynecological and surgical services to pregnant women, who must be
discouraged from home-based delivery where most maternal deaths occur. This focus of the
present Administration makes a lot of sense. It could lead to a 15 percent drop in the
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maternal mortality and neonatal rates.
To summarize, let us quote the response of Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony
Golez to the critics of the government's reproductive health program: "This has to be viewed
in totality.
Population equals economy plus education plus rural development plus
infrastructure plus basic services. It's the whole gamut of factors that is being addressed by
this administration."
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I can only say Amen.
For comments, my email address is
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