Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

So what can the UK Government do about Africa's problem of increasing population? Education is certainly one part of the answer. Encouraging a better role for women so that they are not seen just as baby-making machines is another. Reinstating family planning in our development programme is vital, as my noble friend said. We need to achieve worldwide trade agreements which will drive up average incomes in Africa to see whether there is a direct link between improving incomes and reducing fertility rates.

In their book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, D. H. Meadows et al paint a picture of how, under certain circumstances, population growth slows then levels off at less than 8 billion wordwide; pollution peaks, then falls before it causes irreversible damage; by the end of the current century there is enough food for everyone; and the sustainable society has been ushered in. Here are some of the circumstances which must be fulfilled to reach that goal: all people must be assured by their societies of acceptance, respect, material security, and care in their old age, no matter how few children they have; all couples must have access to effective birth control technologies; and all couples must decide to limit their family size to two children. Unfortunately, the authors say that the last two of these conditions needed to be achieved by 2002, the year of the simulation. Those are not the only conditions. The book also says that the world must develop powerful technologies for pollution abatement, land yield enhancement, land protection, and conservation of non-renewable resources, all at once.



18 Oct 2006 : Column 852

The model used to develop this scenario does not take into account possible wars, labour strikes, corruption, drug addiction, crime and terrorism, many of which have plagued and continue to plague Africa. So, we must all work to help Africa stabilise its population. It will not be easy.

7.49 pm

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, this is a very timely debate. I would go further than making the usual genuflection towards congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. He has hit a lot of nails on the head and, without any collusion, I shall make many of the same points. I declare an interest as cofounder and vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Africa, although what I am about to say does not purport in any way to be a collective view.

My central theme is why Africa does not fit what I shall call the rather benign DfID model. Poverty is clearly a function of GDP per head and income distribution. To cure it, we must increase the sustainable GDP rate of growth and achieve better distribution. Everybody ought to be able to agree on that. In passing, I wish that all NGOs were as economically literate as my noble friend Lord Rea. The questions are: what creates economic development, and what explains African exceptionalism compared with the globalisation from which it seems to have excluded itself?

There is another side to the coin, of course. Some things make growth less likely—excessive population growth, in particular. There have been hugely impressive technical studies. Attention has already been drawn to Population and Poverty, published by the United Nations Population Fund in 2003, which quotes a study by Eastwood and Lipton showing that a reduction of 5 per 1,000 in the net birth rate can increase GDP by 1.36 per cent for a country with a median GDP per capita.

So we come to the puzzle—it is not too much of a puzzle, but DfID finds it so: the reasons for African exceptionalism. What creates the virtuous circle of east Asia—which is not a global virtuous circle which everyone can get to via some inevitable Darwinian process—whereby the number of births per woman reduces and the GDP per head rises sustainably? How on earth do countries such as Niger, Mali and Uganda get there? They have six, seven or eight births per woman whereas the replacement rate, as in the UK, is nearer two. There is a close correlation, if you look at the statistics for all 190-odd countries, between births per woman and the scatter diagram of GDP per head and its growth.

I am not making a fetish of two births per woman. That is a long way off, given the social and anthropological reasons for many people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, wanting to have a lot of children—leaving aside those who do not want to have children and do not have access to birth control. Declining fertility via family planning programmes makes a dramatic improvement. Sexual mores are unfortunately changing for the worse among many young people. We all have to use the euphemism “family planning”, but we ought to get beyond

18 Oct 2006 : Column 853

euphemisms. There is no sign of “family” with precocious sexual behaviour from the age of six, seven or eight in many parts of Africa.

If we are going to do anything to improve African living standards, we must clearly proclaim the importance of reducing births per woman as central to our development strategy. That is why I am sorry to say that I find it little short of scandalous that chapter 5 of the White Paper Making Governance Work for the Poor—which was published in May 2006 and does not have a narrow scope; it has an excellent chapter on climate change, for example—contains not one word on the question of excessive population growth. Why is that? The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has come up with two ideas. He mentioned religion, I think, and I would add to that the fear of neo-colonialism. Those may be explanations. If my facts are wrong, I hope that my noble friend—to whom I have given notice of my line of argument and the sources I am citing—will correct me. If I am accurate, however, the next question is why we are so silent and mealy-mouthed in our profile on this. I am not talking about the Government making erudite submissions in obscure seminars but about the fact that nothing is said loud and clear in the central reports published by DfID on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government or, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, mentioned, in the report of the Commission for Africa.

If the reason is religious sensitivity, we should tell the truth on the basis of rigorous economic analysis. We should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. We should be as robust in dealing with pseudo-religious claims as we are in dealing with false claims of neo-colonialism. I am not anti-religious—I am a member of the Church of England—but I am appalled by the way in which we seem to be censoring ourselves and not saying what needs to be said on this subject.

I welcome and echo what my noble friend Lord Rea said about the alarming connection between population growth and desertification and the destruction of habitat. In Madagascar, where I was this summer, 80 per cent of the rainforest has been slashed and burnt in the past 40 years. There is now bare rock in many places and the habitat of animals such as lemurs is shrinking. I shall come back in a second to the problem of disaffected youths—the young men who hang around the streets of Antananarivo. A compelling study by an academic offshoot of the UN demonstrates very vividly how the conflict in Darfur arose essentially from the destruction of habitat in the nomadic areas, which led to migration and inevitable clashes over land at the most sensitive junction of so many ethnic and religious traditions, leaving aside the odd legacy of straight lines on the map from the colonial era in Sudan and other places.

As noble Lords have said, getting Africa to change is not easy. The recipe is all too reminiscent of the famous recipe for jugged hare that begins, “First, catch your hare”. That is very difficult. There has to be dialogue with the African Union and with all

18 Oct 2006 : Column 854

parts of Africa, and it will have to be robust. Unemployment may be one way into it, and it is absolutely necessary to consider that, but the other way may be to look at migration, given that a state governor in Nigeria said that if more aid did not come there, more people would come to Europe. People are putting that on the agenda and we must be honest and robust in addressing it.

7.59 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I echo the congratulations expressed to my noble friend Lord Taverne on his brilliant speech, in which he argued most effectively that a reduction in the rate of population growth is an effective means of promoting development in Africa. That sentiment has been echoed by every other noble Lord who has spoken.

Last year, the UN report on population challenges and development goals concluded that reduction of birth rates led to a “demographic bonus” whereby the number of people of working age increased relative to those of the children and the elderly, contributing significantly to economic growth and poverty reduction. But the UN study of world population prospects in 2004 showed that, over the last 30 years, the lowest reductions in fertility occurred in 12 African high-fertility countries, as has been mentioned. These countries are forecast to have the highest population growth, coupled with the lowest chance of reaching the millennium development goals, particularly as regards infant and maternal mortality and universal primary education.

The Africa Commission said that Africa's population is exploding and that millions are migrating to the slums of cities, where the young are unemployed and disaffected. Yet it fails to link the population explosion with Africa’s underdevelopment or to emphasise the negative feedback between high rates of growth and the acute environmental risks affecting the continent. That point was mentioned by several noble Lords. The commission recommends that donors should do all that they can to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive services, including the provision of an extra $300 million in commodity requirements. But it offers no suggestions about how to overcome the inertia or obstruction by Governments and religious organisations to these programmes, a matter to which my noble friend Lord Taverne referred.

There have been shortages of condoms in Africa. Last year, there was a particular shortage in Uganda, to which my noble friend referred. I think that that shortage was partly caused by the American plan for AIDS relief driven by the religious right, which emphasises abstinence. The DfID profile on Uganda rightly praises the Government of President Museveni for reducing the prevalence of HIV and AIDS from 18 per cent to 6 per cent in a decade. But many women are still unable to exercise freedom of choice over their own fertility. One-third of Ugandan women say that they would like to stop or postpone having children if they could. They are among the100 million to 200 million whom the noble Viscount,

18 Oct 2006 : Column 855

Lord Craigavon, referred to who want to control their fertility but who do not have the means of doing so.

According to UN estimates—and this was also referred to by my noble friend—Uganda's population may treble from 42 million in 2005 to 127 million in 2050. With similar increases in other countries in that region, climate change—which is linked to population increase, as the noble Lord, Lord Jones, remarked, and is likely to reduce agricultural production because of extended desertification, lack of water, loss of soil fertility and reduction of crop yields—could bring about conflicts over resources, mass starvation and large-scale emigration long before the mid-century arrives. Droughts have increased in frequency in the Horn from one in eight years to one in three, and there are too many cattle for the carrying capacity of the people, but too few to feed the increasing number of mouths. In Somalia, the desperation of people living on the edge of survival is already reinforcing the growth of radical Islam. Even war-torn Somalia, without a functioning Government or health service, is estimated to have a population increase from8 million in 2005 to 21 million in 2050, while the combined populations of Kenya and Tanzania will double over the same period to 150 million. It is inconceivable that east Africa can sustain increases of this order.

The question is: what can the countries themselves and the donor community do to avert the looming catastrophe? A far greater emphasis on the MDG of promoting gender equality and empowering women would be an essential part of any strategy, because if women controlled their own fertility they would not have very large families. Bill Gates wrote in the Independent the other day:

I would argue that abstinence is in any case an unworkable policy and contrary to human nature, but if women themselves decided when to get married and could decide on whether contraceptives should be used, both population growth and HIV/AIDS infections would be reduced, as has been remarked, and women liberated from the burden and health risks of constant childbearing would be able to make a far greater contribution to the economy, especially in agriculture.

In fact, 120 million women in sub-Saharan Africa are illiterate and most African women have less access to land and education than ever before. Elizabeth Chacko of George Washington University points out that Kerala in India has a low fertility rate compared with that of India as a whole because the women of Kerala have a relatively high status, are well educated and are integrated into the workforce. She says that whether a woman can read, can understand what methods of contraception are available to her and is empowered to use them can have a great impact on fertility rates.

DfID says that one of its key priorities is to get more girls into school, leading to greater economic growth, less poverty and reduced fertility, and that is

18 Oct 2006 : Column 856

an important contribution towards attaining the MDG of promoting gender equality. But six years ago DfID also said in an excellent report on poverty and women's empowerment that education alone would not be enough—inequalities needed to be tackled across the board in economic, political, social and cultural life. The Beijing World Conference on Women of 1995 identified 12 critical areas of concern, of which one was unequal access to education and training—one very important one, but not the only one. So I suggest to the Minister that it is time for DfID to review the strategy for poverty elimination and the empowerment of women and to upgrade accordingly its country programmes for Africa. That is not only the right policy for its own sake, but the best way to harness the talent and energies of half the population of Africa and to prevent a Malthusian catastrophe from overwhelming the continent within two generations.

8.07 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I must apologise to the House for not being here at the start of the debate. I had to attend a funeral and, needless to say, the train was late. I pray your Lordships’ indulgence. As the time for this debate has also changed, I asked my noble friend Lady Seccombe to come to my rescue. I am most grateful to her for agreeing and for filling me in on the very impressive introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne.

I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important Question. Current population projections suggest that Africa's population will double again within a generation—as it did during the previous generation—while the figures in some individual sub-Saharan countries are even more dramatic. Despite high mortality rates, there is no evidence that points to the rate of population growth slowing.

Such sharp demographic change brings with it many problems and prevents solutions being found to existing problems—not least, economic ones. As long as population growth continues at the current rate, it will be very hard to achieve economic growth in real terms. Even where countries are seeing GDP growth, that is more often than not offset by even greater population expansion. Rapid population growth therefore potentially represents one of the biggest barriers to tackling poverty. Continuing to throw money and aid at the problem, while admirable in sentiment, will struggle to have any lasting effect unless the population explosion ends.

There are equally marked demographic links to hunger and starvation. Population growth is leading to over-exploitation of farmland. More than 80 per cent of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is now severely degraded, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Jones. Nutrients are disappearing from the soil because of overuse due to the pressure of feeding an ever-increasing number of people. As the cycle continues, African farmland will become incapable of sustaining its already undernourished people.

Many noble Lords have rightly stressed that the pressure on the land also causes other problems, such

18 Oct 2006 : Column 857

as deforestation, inadequate supplies of fresh water and, inevitably, climate change, as the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Lea, mentioned. In Ethiopia, for example, nearly half the country was forested only a century ago. Now only 4 per cent of the country is covered with trees, as the land is required to help feed the population. As the population grows, it will also create new difficulties. It will become increasingly difficult to maintain adequate numbers of schools and hospitals and to improve these and other basic services.

The fertility rates in Africa are astonishing. In the rest of the world, including developing nations in Latin America and Asia, birth rates have steadily declined to an average of 2.3 children per mother. Most nations will experience only modest population growth in the next few decades. Yet, in large portions of Africa, the position is very different. In Uganda, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, mentioned, the average mother gives birth to seven children. This remarkable fertility rate has been constant for more than 30 years. Are the Government aware of these birth rates, and do they accept that the continent simply cannot support the numbers? Given that the population of Africa is set to increase from around 750 million today to nearly 1.7 billion people by 2050, does the Minister agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that such a development would place a huge strain on natural resources and the environment?

Fewer than one in five married women in Uganda have access to contraception. This is a very typical cross-section. What practical steps are the Government taking to improve the awareness of birth control in Africa? Can we expect any increase in the availability of contraception? Does the Minister agree that it is often the poorest and less educated women who have the least access to family-planning services? As the poorest and less educated women have larger families, unlike the educated women in Kerala, whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, what can the Government do to tackle this problem?

I recently returned from South Africa, where I had the opportunity to study the Anglo-American programme which raises awareness of, and provides treatment for, AIDS for all its employees. Run by the very enlightened Dr Brian Brink, this excellent programme has been in place for several years, and works in various ways. It focuses on prevention, which is so important. The programme ranges from practical measures, such as the distribution of contraception, to behaviour-based education and targeting young audiences. Does the Minister accept that the frightening spread of HIV shares many roots with uncontrolled population growth, and that there can and should be a similar approach to both? Will the Government look into the impressive Anglo-American programme developed by Dr Brian Brink and encourage others to follow?

Some of the figures relating to population growth that we have heard from many noble Lords today are so striking that there must be an appreciation of the fact that urgent measures are needed. Without the stabilisation of its population, Africa will find it impossible to address and to resolve many of the

18 Oct 2006 : Column 858

issues that noble Lords have clearly identified today. This is especially true of the economic problems that have attracted so much recent popular interest all over the world.

8.15 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for securing this debate and to other noble Lords for their valuable contributions. I also welcome the recent series of parliamentary hearings by the APPG on population, development and reproductive health which have helped to raise the profile of this issue. I pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, for his sterling work in the APPG, and for the group’s work for many years to ensure that this important issue does not slip down the political agenda.

Population—people—are at the centre of the Government’s business. The biggest obstacles to population stabilisation in Africa are poverty, lack of sexual and reproductive health rights and lack of access to basic services. We are certainly aware of the birth rates. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that sexual and reproductive health are an important part of this Government’s international development policy. However, discussion about limiting population growth has to be firmly based in a rights context. Underlying high levels of population growth is deep-rooted gender inequality. Women’s low status, lack of decision-making power and control, poor access to information and care, restricted mobility, early age of marriage, and low political priority and resources all contribute to high fertility rates by limiting their ability to make informed choices to ensure healthy sexual and reproductive lives. As the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, it is the poorest women who have the fewest choices. The attainment of universal sexual and reproductive health rights underpins the achievement of the millennium development goals on poverty reduction, maternal and child mortality, gender empowerment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The noble Viscount is right that we have to create conditions and means whereby sexual and reproductive health can thrive.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, I warmly welcomethe new target in the MDG framework to includethe International Conference on Population and Development goal of universal access to reproductive health by 2015. Indeed, the UK worked very hard to achieve that outcome and strongly supports inclusion of this target. One indicator for consideration of the new target was the unmet need for family planning. The Secretary-General recommended inclusion of this in his report that was noted by the UN General Assembly in October. Sadly, the Holy See and USA raised some last minute objections, and negotiations to ensure inclusion of the target and to agree appropriate monitoring indicators are continuing. However, we are committed to work on this diligently because we want to ensure the appropriate outcome.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page