Thursday, August 25, 2011

It's not too many people

The population density of Somalia is about 13 persons per square km, whereas that of the US state of Oklahoma is 21.1. The western part of Oklahoma is also semi-arid, is suffering from a serious drought this year, and was the poster child for the 1930s Dust Bowl. Furthermore, if we take into account differing levels of consumption, with the average American consuming about 28 times as much as the average Somali in a normal year, then Oklahoma's population density of 21.1 persons per square km equates to that of 591 Somalis. Despite the fact that Oklahoma's per capita impact on the landscape is more than 45 times that of Somalia (when accounting for population density and consumption levels), we don't talk about overpopulation in Oklahoma. This is because, in spite of the drought and the collapse of agriculture, there is no famine in Oklahoma. In contrast, the presence of famine in the Horn of Africa leads many to assume that too many people is a key part of the problem. Why is it that we often isolate population growth as the key environmental problem in the poorest regions of the world?

Firstly, many that reducing the number of mouths to feed is one of the easiest ways to prevent hunger and famine. Having fewer or no children may be easy for a middle-class person in the United States, where raising children is expensive and most of us expect no economic return from our kids as they grow older. In fact, one could argue that having children in the American context is economically irrational. The situation is quite different in the Horn of Africa. It's true that many families desire access to modern contraceptives, and filling this unmet need is important. However, for many others, children are crucial sources of farm labour or important wage earners who help sustain the family. Children also act as the old-age social security system for their parents. For these families, having fewer children is not an easy decision. Families in this region will have fewer children when it makes economic sense to do so. As we have seen over time and throughout the world, the average family size shrinks when economies develop and expectations for offspring change.

Second, we tend to focus on the additional resources required to nourish each new person, and often forget the productive capacity of these individuals. Throughout Africa, some of the most productive farmscapes are in those regions with the highest population densities. In Machakos, Kenya, for example, agricultural production and environmental conservation improved as population densities increased. Furthermore, we have seen agricultural production collapse in some areas where population declined (often due to outmigration) because there was insufficient labour to maintain intensive agricultural production. [As SOYMB has quoted others before "every extra person born brings not only an extra mouth but also an extra pair of hands."]

Third, we must not forget that much of the region's agricultural production is not consumed locally. From the colonial era moving forward, farmers and herders have been encouraged to become more commercially oriented, producing crops and livestock for the market rather than for home consumption. This might have been a reasonable strategy if the prices for exports from the Horn of Africa were high (which they rarely have been) and the cost of food imports low. Food prices in Somalia are now often three times as high as the normal, making these goods inaccessible to much of the population.

Lastly, large land leases (or "land grabs") to foreign governments and corporations in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent in Kenya and Somalia have further exacerbated this problem. These farms, designed solely for export production, effectively subsidise the food security of other regions of the world (most notably the Middle East and Asia) at the expense of populations in the Horn of Africa.

Yet Oklahoma is not perceived as overpopulated because, in spite of a horrendous drought, it is not facing famine. Famine in Oklahoma is inconceivable because it receives a fair price for its exports, it has not leased its land to foreign countries, the poorest of the poor receive a helping hand from the government, and farmers and ranchers receive federal assistance in times of droughts. It is a lack of these factors in Horn of Africa, (plus political insecurity in Somalia), which explain the famine - not overpopulation.

Re-produced from an article in Al Jazeera by William G. Moseley, professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, author of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on African Issues

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