Monday, 18 October 2010

UN to Niger: Stop having babies

Niger. A land-locked country trying to make a go of life with some not-so-stable neighbours, mineral resources largely limited to uranium and an awful lot of desert. This year there was a food crisis in Niger which, after various bits of political wrangling and re-appeals, was mostly covered by international funding. This is great but, as the UN notes in this article, something must be done to end cyclic shortages. Five years ago, in 2005, Niger experienced a devastating famine and even in good years, food shortages occur. The Nigerien government has launched it's own food security agency to develop strategies to address the problem but at this point, food insecurity is a very real and chronic problem for Niger.

The UN's solution? Women in Niger should have fewer babies. 

From Reuters:
Valerie Amos, the United Nations' top aid official who visited Niger last week, said current population growth was far outstripping rising food production.
"There are recurrent food crises, but there is also a very high growth in population, which could go from 15 million today to about 50 million in 2050," Amos said at the weekend.
"I don't think Niger's agricultural production, which is already vulnerable to climate change, can sustain this and so we need, amongst other things, better family planning policies."
Because, to quote the article, “[a]cross Africa, high population growth rates are undermining efforts to improve living standards and cut poverty rates.”

First off, let's get one thing straight, just in case anyone reading this subscribes to the bizarre idea that the reason for all the world's problems is that there are too many people in Africa: African countries tend to have low population density figures. Population density in Niger is roughly 12 people per square km. For comparison, South Africa has an equivalent figure of roughly 40, which is still low compared to Ethiopia's 71 , Haiti's 361 or Bangladesh at 1126 per km² (potentially dodgy figures from Wikipedia but ratios are right).

Even if one assumes that a growing population is a problem, perhaps the UN would do well to take a minute to consider why women in Niger have lots of children. Apart from cultural and religious reasons, perhaps - just maybe - these figures have something to do with it:
  • 160 out of every 1000 children, on average, will die by the age of 5 (under-5 mortality rate)
  • Infant mortality is 76 per 1000 live births
  • Only 46% of women receive prenatal care
  • 156 births per 1000 are to women between the ages of 15 and 19
  • Maternal mortality is 820 per 100 000 live births (in Australia it is 8)
Women in Niger have many children because quite often the children die. And quite often the mothers die. Having babies is hard. There are no guarentees. If the UN would like the population growth rate in Niger to drop, they are going to need to work a lot harder at channelling funds to improved maternal and child health and perhaps, while they're at it, supporting girls' education and ending child-marriage.

And here is another suggestion: if the problem is food insecurity (which it is) perhaps greater investment in livelihoods would make it possible for the people of Niger to keep having families and retain the dignity that goes with making this choice for themselves instead of being told what to do by the UN. For example, greater investment in protecting livestock in times of drought and famine could greatly improve self-sufficiency or, at the very least, reduce vulnerability.

Niger is an extremely poor country that suffers from recurrent famine. It is a country with few human comforts and ranks 182 on the HDI, making it officially (according to this measure at least) the worst place on earth to live. It is a huge drain on international and UN resources and a blight on MDG 1 progress. It is also a country full of people who deserve respect and dignity and the UN  doesn't get to shirk the responsibility of assisting Niger by simply saying that Nigeriens need to stop having babies.

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