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Dear Professor, Africa Is Not Overpopulated

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Prelude: in an article published in the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, the Prof. in Zoology Harald Kryvi, blames the problems in East African on overpopulation. The headline for the Danish article was “The Hunger Catastrophe in East Africa Caused by Overpopulation, Full Stop”. 

I disagree, and this is my response (to read in Danish, click here)

Gall–Peters_projection_SW.jpgThe true size of Africa, Gall-Peters Projection

As an Africa educated, I was irritated that apparently, so many people are still so incredibly ignorant about Africa. Also among educated people like this professor. Still, the same people are so eager to tell Africans what their problems are and what they shall do.

The headline also triggered me. If you have to emphasise your words, that means your argumentation might be weak. The written equivalent of when you raise your voice instead of improving your argumentation.

But let’s start with the facts, the fertility rate has fallen in almost every single East African country. In Kenya, the fertility rate has been cut in more than half since 1960. In 1960, the average woman got 8 children, today, she gets less than 4. In the major cities, some women get less than 1.5 children per woman. The same trends are observable in countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Mozambique, and several other African countries.

There are exceptions such as Burundi, Somalia and DR Congo, where the fertility rate has decreased only slightly if any.

Prof. Kryvi, and what I can read also the vast majority of Danes on Facebook, ignores the core problem.

A high fertility rate is not a cause, it is a symptom.

Besides, what would Kryvi propose in case he was right? That the international community goes in and forcibly sterilises Africans? Such idea brings back memories of racial hygiene from a bygone and shameful era.

If a high fertility rate is not the cause, what is the cause or rather causes then? In countries with a weak welfare state, and more extreme in failed states, your children are your life insurance. When you get old, it is your children who will take care of you. Without children, you are severely disadvantaged, when you reach old age and need help.

People, who work within the agricultural sector, also employ their children in order to support the family such as helping with farm work in order to make a living.

In fragile states, the infant mortality rate is high. In Burundi, over 700 people have died and nearly 2 million people are infected with malaria, in 2017 alone, and the numbers are getting worse as we speak. Since 2015, the country has been in a civil war caused by the power hungry and corrupt leader, President Pierre Nkurunziza. Children are particularly vulnerable and combined with other diseases it makes it necessary to give birth to more children. If you get only one or two children, the risk is that none of the children will survive, and you’ve lost your whole life insurance. That makes it better to get too many children than too few.

Thereby, the problem is not that a mother gets 4, 6 or 8 children, but the problems are the underlying factors in the mother’s need for having numerous children.

Furthermore, the dear professor forgets several vital issues when stating that the predicament of East Africa is due to overpopulation leading to food shortage, full stop.

Such as, that Ethiopia exports tonnes of food, which ends up in supermarkets in Asia and Europe partly due to land grabbing.

He overlooks that foreign countries have actively made things worse for African countries. In Somalia, foreign states destroyed the fishing communities by exploiting the lack of a governmental oversight. Several foreign countries entered the sea of Somalia stealing the fish that also led to overfishing. Other countries dumped their toxic waste off the coast of Somalia. This went on for more than a decade. One day, the local fishermen had had enough and attacked the ships responsible for destroying the sea and hence their livelihood. In a very short period of time, the foundations of organised piracy came to be.

It is also forgotten that Western countries actively support bad leaders in Africa. Human Rights Watch has in harsh terms repeatedly criticised Western donors that aid donated to Ethiopia, might be allocated to the Ethiopian military, which again is accused of serious human rights violations against the local population.

In 2015, the EU allocated € 200 million to Africa’s answer to North Korea, Eritrea. The Financial Times directly links a lack of democracy to a higher risk of famine. When the EU, among others, supports bad leaders, we contribute to laying the foundation for autocratic regimes paving the way for famine by preventing democracy from taking root.

Kryvi also ignores that several African countries are struggling with the negative impacts of the accumulated debt and the neo-liberalist demands made by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund during the Cold War.

Not to mention the problems on agricultural subsidies giving to the European farmers. Roughly speaking, in Europe, we financially support farmers, in Africa, farmers are taxed.

That distorts the free markets, negatively affecting African farmers destroying the local agriculture business.

That brings me to my main point: Africa, as a continent, is not overpopulated.

Africa is greater than China, India, the United States, and Europe combined. If these parts were one country, the population would approximately consist of 3 billion people.

Africa is only inhabited by approximately 1.2 billion people.

Additionally, Africa consists of 54 states, where the size of the states varies significantly. DR Congo is the size of the entire Western Europe, while a country like Rwanda is smaller than the peninsula of Jutland, Denmark.

Rwanda is inhabited by 12 million people, but despite a growing population, fewer people are starving, and this has been the case since the year 2000.

On the other hand, South Sudan experiences the opposite. Its population is just 13 million people, but it is 24 times larger than Rwanda. Overpopulation cannot be used as an explanation for the food crises. If so, Rwanda should be the one experiencing a food crisis and not South Sudan. But that is not the case.

The famine in South Sudan is a product of the ongoing civil war, where the government prefers to spend money on weapons than food for the starving population. The hunger catastrophe is not a product of overpopulation. South Sudan is underpopulated if anything.

While we are on the subject of Rwanda and population density. Rwanda is the country in Africa with the absolute highest population density of 459 people per km2 (in Denmark the figure is 134 people per km2). Meaning, Rwanda has a similar population density to that of the Netherlands. No one is arguing the Netherlands is overpopulated.

The problem is that too few African countries have embarked on a process of industrialisation.

The consequence is that circa 75% of the African population still relies on what they can grow in the small plot of land that they own, typically 1-2 ha. With a growing population, it means that there is a lack of fertile land available.

But this problem could be solved if African governments began a sincere quest for industrialisation. If they did, they would additionally be able to fight the increasing youth unemployment that is currently a time bomb ready to go off.

Most African countries could produce enough food to feed their growing population if more resources were invested in the agricultural sector and if more was done to begin to industrialise the various countries. This requires combating and preferably eradicate the epidemic level of corruption.

Why there is a lack of industrialisation has its own complex causes that in no way can or should be boiled down to how many children are born or not.

It would also help if European countries interfered less in African countries’ internal affairs.

The Western countries’ “we know best”-attitude has historically proved fatal. Maybe it is time to listen to what the African countries themselves think that needs to be done and to provide active support. It could be done by exchanging knowledge, creating partnerships, and pave the way for investments.

Investment in education, job creation, industrialisation, and agriculture would automatically have an impact on the fertility rate.

Again, a high fertility rate is a symptom, not a cause. To lower the fertility rates would not target the real problems affecting Africans.

Problems in East Africa and in several other African countries are thus not the fertility rate, but problems within the political system and policies, in which Western countries, at times, play a quite negative role. This makes the situation that much more difficult.

To end on a positive side note, let me cite the Financial Times:

Contrary to common perception, Asia and eastern Europe — not Africa — have been the locus of world hunger. Between 1870 and 2010, 87 per cent of deaths from famine occurred in those regions, with only 9.2 per cent in Africa.

In addition, a report from 2016, published by the independent African think tank Afrobarometer, almost 70% of Africans from selected 35 African countries never or rarely go to bed hungry.

Africa is so much more than starving people. The majority of Africans have food.


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