For many developing countries, investments in health have proved a great success. The LancetCommission “Global health 2035: a world converging within a generation”1 and the 2014 Gates annual letter2 envision the possibility of a “grand convergence” by which more countries will have a child mortality rate as low as 15 per 1000 livebirths in 20 years time. We wish to draw attention to the special case of the least developed countries, which on present evidence are likely to be excluded from such a convergence.
Last year a member of the World Bank professional staff gave a lecture on development in Africa on the UC Berkeley campus. His audience asked him about rapid population growth in that continent. He immediately dismissed the question, saying that population growth did not need any special attention. It would look after itself. He was voicing an uncritical interpretation of the demographic transition, a “theory” which has as much evidence to support it as the fictitious Da Vinci Code, and like the Da Vinci Code it remains perennially popular.
Although fertility decline often correlates with improvements in socioeconomic conditions, many demographers have found flaws in demographic transition theories that depend on changes in distal factors such as increased wealth or education. Human beings worldwide engage in sexual intercourse much more frequently than is needed to conceive the number of children they want, and for women who do not have access to the information and means they need to separate sex from childbearing, the default position is a large family. In many societies, male patriarchal drives to control female reproduction give rise to unnecessary medical rules constraining family planning (including safe abortion) or justifying child marriage. Widespread misinformation about contraception makes women afraid to adopt modern family planning. The barriers to family planning can be so deeply infused that for many women the idea of managing their fertility is not considered an option. Conversely, there is evidence that once family planning is introduced into a society, then it is normal consumer behaviour for individuals to welcome a new technology they had not wanted until it became realistically available. We contend that in societies free from child marriage, wherever women have access to a range of contraceptive methods, along with correct information and backed up by safe abortion, family size will always fall. Education and wealth can make the adoption of family planning easier, but they are not prerequisites for fertility decline. By contrast, access to family planning itself can accelerate economic development and the spread of education.
Between February 2002 and January 2004 in the Adigrat Zonal Hospital, covering one-fifth of the large Tigray region of North West Ethiopia, there were 907 admissions with a diagnosis of abortion. Among these, 521 were induced by traditional, unsafe methods. Unsafe abortion was the leading cause of admission, accounting for 12.6% of all bed occupancy throughout this general hospital and 60.6% of the gynecological admissions. About 57% of patients admitted with unsafe abortions had serious complications, including tubo-ovarian abscess, vaginal laceration, uterine perforation, generalised peritonitis and renal failure. Three women died from complications of unsafe abortion. Five years later in the same hospital, between July 2009 and September 2010 unsafe abortion cases had declined, becoming the tenth cause of hospital admission. There were no deaths and no severe complications.
Niger—with the world’s fastest growing population, its highest total fertility rate (TFR), a small and diminishing amount of arable land, low annual rainfall, a high level of malnutrition, extremely low levels of education, gross gen- der inequities and an uncertain future in the face of climate change—is the most extreme example of a catastrophe that is likely to overtake the Sahel. The policies chosen by Niger’s government and the international community to reduce rapid population growth and the speed with which they are implemented are of the utmost importance. In this comment, we review the problems posed by Niger’s rapid population growth and the policy options proposed to confront it.
One approach to delivering healthcare in developing countries is through voucher programmes, where vouchers are distributed to a targeted population for free or subsidised health care. Using inclusion/exclusion criteria, a search of databases, key journals and websites review was conducted in October 2010. A narrative synthesis approach was taken to summarise and analyse five outcome categories: targeting, utilisation, cost efficiency, quality and health outcomes. Sub-group and sensitivity analyses were also performed. A total of 24 studies evaluating 16 health voucher programmes were identified. The findings from 64 outcome variables indicates: modest evidence that vouchers effectively target specific populations; insufficient evidence to determine whether vouchers deliver healthcare efficiently; robust evidence that vouchers increase utilisation; modest evidence that vouchers improve quality; no evidence that vouchers have an impact on health outcomes; however, this last conclusion was found to be unstable in a sensitivity analysis. The results in the areas of targeting, utilisation and quality indicate that vouchers have a positive effect on health service delivery. The subsequent link that they improve health was found to be unstable from the data analysed; another finding of a positive effect would result in robust evidence. Vouchers are still new and the number of published studies is limiting.
The silence about population growth in recent decades has hindered the ability of those concerned with ecological change, resource scarcity, health and educational systems, national security, and other global challenges to look with maximum objectivity at the problems they confront. Two central questions about population—(i) is population growth a problem? and (2) what causes fertility decline?—are often intertwined; if people think the second question implies possible coercion, or fear of upsetting cultures, they can be reluctant to talk about the first. The classic and economic theories explaining the demographic transition assume that couples want many children and they make decisions to have a smaller family when some socio-economic change occurs. However, there are numerous anomalies to this explanation. This paper suggests that the societal changes are neither necessary nor sufficient for family size to fall. Many barriers of non-evidence-based restrictive medical rules, cost, misinformation and social traditions exist between women and the fertility regulation methods and correct information they need to manage their family size. When these barriers are reduced, birth rates tend to decline. Many of the barriers reflect a patriarchal desire to control women, which can be largely explained by evolutionary biology. The theoretical explanations of fertility should (i) attach more weight to the many barriers to voluntary fertility regulation, (ii) recognize that a latent desire to control fertility may be far more prevalent among women than previously understood, and (iii) appreciate that women implicitly and rationally make benefit–cost analyses based on the information they have, wanting modern family planning only after they understand it is a safe option. Once it is understood that fertility can be lowered by purely voluntary means, comfort with talking about the population factor in development will rise.
Published in: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B October 27, 2009 364:3101-3113;
We found ourselves strongly disagreeing with a recent editorial in Contraception by Wells et al. when they asserted, “Thirty years ago, our approach to uncontrolled population growth in developing countries was to flood them with contraceptives. After millions of dollars without making an appreciable dent, we have come to understand that improving contraceptive practice is more dependent on women’s literacy and education than on the actual access to contraceptives”. We also asked why those who are often warm friends and who work together with a common enthusiasm to improve all aspects of family planning can also end up adopting profoundly different explanations of why family size falls. We all accept that modern contraception improves the health of women and their families and that it is central to the autonomy of women in modern societies, yet for half a century, family planning has been riven by this deep and sometimes counterproductive fault line. On one side are those who emphasize that easy access to modern contraception, backed by honest information, helps drive up the contraceptive prevalence rate. On the other side are those who assert that changes in socio-economic factors are a prerequisite for greater contraceptive use.
Printed in Contraception. 77: 389-390. 2008
Evolutionary psychology posits that certain behaviours are universal because they helped the genes of a particular species to survive across the generations. In the case of human beings, such behavioral predispositions evolved to adapt us to the Stone Age rather the modern world. Patriarchy, we suggest, has deep roots in human evolution.
Published in Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, July 2008
Letter in response to the Perspective “REPRODUCING IN CITIES” by Mace published in Science February 2008 in Science
In her Perspective “Reproducing in cities” (8 February, p. 764), R. Mace assumes that differences in birth rates between rural and urban areas largely represent the wishes of parents. Human beings in all societies have sexual intercourse hundreds or even thousands of times more often than is needed to conceive the number of children they want. Once individuals have access to the means and information to separate sex from childbearing, family size often falls rapidly (1). For rural women there are an astonishing number of barriers to access to modern contraception (2), while urban women are often better placed to overcome these barriers.
We suggest that birth rates fall in cities primarily because contraception and safe abortion are easier to obtain than in the countryside. For example, in rural Ethiopia only doctors and nurses are permitted to give contraceptive injections, so this popular method is denied to rural women. The total fertility rate (TFR) in Ethiopia as a whole is 5.4, while in Addis Ababa it is now thought to be below 2.0 children. Addis is unusual among African capitals in that safe abortion was available for several years before the recent liberalization of the abortion law. Tens of thousands of operations were performed annually and linked to effective post-abortion contraceptive advice.
We posit that fertility will fall in rural Ethiopia as contraception and safe abortion become more easily available. In Bangladesh, where many women now have access to modern contraception and reasonably safe abortion, two large predominantly rural areas (Khulna and Rajhashi) now have replacement-level fertility (3).
Published in Science, May 16 2008, 874