A+ A A-

Population Politics and the Shambles of Africa


People often argue that countries are poor because they have too many people and not enough resources. If there are too many people, then each newborn is a threat to every other human being and population control policies are needed. But this logic just doesn't hold for Africa.

aamountainIdeas have consequences, and the idea that the world is overpopulated leads to certain inescapable conclusions. If there are too many people in the world, then each newborn is a threat to every other human being. If these babies are threats, then it would be acceptable to eradicate the threat. Now, this may sound harsh and unrealistic. After all, most population control groups don't actually advocate the eradication of children.

But many of these groups come very close to this view when they argue that unless people voluntarily restrict their family size it should be done coercively. In his book Population, Resources, Environment, Ehrlich acknowledges that compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea to many, but the alternatives may be much more horrifying.1 On another occasion, Ehrlich compares children to cancer: We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out.2 Another advocate of population control, Kingsley Davis, says, Over-reproduction that is, the bearing of more than four children is a worse crime than most and should be outlawed.3 Biologist Paul Silverman told one university audience, If voluntary restraints on population growth are not forthcoming we will be faced with a need to consider coercive measures.4

Myths affect public policy. An interesting example of this is Adolph Hitler's policy of Lebensraum. Hitler wanted to expand the territory under German control because he believed that Germany was becoming overpopulated and soon would not be able to feed its people. On January 21, 1938 Hitler told his generals:

A good harvest provides just enough food for our present population for one year. If the harvest is only mediocre, we lose several months' food supplies. If the harvest is poor and this will certainly happen one day the German people will only get enough food for quarter or half a year on the basis of the present population, that is. But Germany's population growth is 600,000 new heads every year. That's six million in ten years. How can Germany continue to feed her people? That is only possible if we acquire new territory and we must get that by brute force.5

The flaw in Hitler's reasoning was that he assumed that agricultural output couldn't be increased more rapidly than population growth without territorial conquest. This same logic is behind the entire overpopulation hysteria. The proof of his error is that Germany today has a much larger population than it had in 1938, and yet it is one of the richest countries in the world. The two projections that Hitler made that population would continue to grow and that agricultural output would be stagnant were both wrong. Food production grew faster than did the population, and today the German birth rate is well below the replacement level.

Ehrlich begins with the same premises as Hitler, but he tackles the issue from the opposite direction; in other words, whereas Hitler's solution was to forcibly expand agricultural output, Ehrlich's solution is to forcibly limit population growth.

Coercive methods of birth control have been used in a number of Third World countries. Anthropologist Steven Mosher, who lived in rural China when the one child policy of the government was implemented, describes what happened there:

... there were eighteen women, all from five-to nine-months pregnant, and many red-eyed from lack of sleep and crying. They sat listlessly on short plank benches in a semicircle about the front of the room, where He Kaifeng (a top cadre and party member) explained the purpose of the meeting in no uncertain terms. You are here because you have yet to 'think clear' about birth control, and you will remain here until you do. ... Looking coldly around the room, he said slowly and deliberately, None of you has any choice in this matter...Then, visually calculating how far along the women in the room were, he went on to add, The two of you who are eight or nine months pregnant will have a Caesarean; the rest of you will have a shot which will cause you to abort.6

The New York Times reported in 1982 that Chinese women were rounded up and forced to have abortions. The article by Christopher Wren said that vigilantes abducted pregnant women on the streets and hauled them off, sometimes hand-cuffed or trussed, to abortion clinics.7

Mosher describes the pain of one woman whose pregnancy was discovered at the last minute. She pleaded to be allowed to have one more child. In the village there is no way to survive if you don't have a son, she cried. In the rural areas of China as in many other parts of the underdeveloped world, children were regarded as a means of support for parents in their old age. Since a son was more likely than a daughter to be able to provide for his parents, many families wanted to have at least one son. But if they were allowed only one child and that child was a girl, they were faced with a problem. Many rural families solved this problem by simply allowing female babies to die. In an article for the Wall Street Journal Mosher wrote that the People's Republic Press openly spoke of the butchering, drowning, and leaving to die of female infants and the maltreating of women who have given birth to girls.8 A policy to limit population growth actually resulted in the genocide of female children.

In the Dongpu district of Canton, birth control regulations that came into effect in 1987 stated that any unmarried pregnant woman should be ordered to have an abortion. A woman was required to have an IUD inserted within four months of having her first child. Any woman who has had one child [who] fails at birth control would be forced to have an abortion and undergo sterilization. According to China Spring, the regulations further stated, If any unauthorized baby dies within three months of birth, the penalty will be only 300 yuan. This penalty is less than a mother would have to pay for having an unauthorised child and it is therefore a blatant attempt to encourage infanticide.9

In another case, the Chinese government tried to force a Chinese woman, studying with her husband in the United States, to have an abortion. The woman, who was pregnant with her second child, received a letter from the Population Control Office of the Manchurian factory where she had previously worked. The letter said:

The punishment for this kind of violation is very severe, and we strongly advise you not to risk it.

If you cannot have this abortion done abroad, then the factory director orders you to return to China immediately. Any further delays and you will be punished according to the law.

There is nothing ambiguous about our order! Make up your mind immediately.10

The U.S. government, through the Agency for International Development, was involved in this "birth control" program. AID "disclaimed direct involvement in the program, although it was a major contributor to the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), both of which supplied funds to the Chinese program."11

Forced abortion and the murder of babies in Communist China, like Hitler's Lebensraum policy, were direct results of accepting the overpopulation myth. Nick Eberstadt writes that the Chinese policy was implemented because the government had decided that its modernization program was being threatened by 'excessive' childbearing in the provinces (the role of the government in depressing the production of food or restricting the expansion of consumer industries was not a subject for public discussion).12 The Chinese saw coercive birth control as just another form of socialism. According to a member of China's Family Planning Commission,

social production is composed of material production and human reproduction... The socialist system in China [emphasizes both] material production and human reproduction, and [must] regulate population growth in a planned way, as we regulate material production following plans.13

The Chinese program was not condemned by the population control movement. On the contrary, many groups applauded the use of raw coercion. UNFPA gave an award to China for its attempts to control population growth. Another group, Californians for Population Stabilization, held an Award Dinner in Honour of The People's Republic of China to honour the Communist Chinese for acknowledging overpopulation and encouraging family planning. The main speaker at the award dinner was the president of the Population Institute.

When a number of individuals within the American government became disturbed that taxpayers' money was being channeled through private groups to help finance coercive population control in China and attempted to stop these grants, Planned Parenthood, which receives millions in taxpayer funding, launched a vigorous lobbying effort to counter the proposal. The campaign scrupulously avoided all mention of the Chinese connection, implying instead that right-wing fanatics were trying to destroy birth control around the world. One ad, which ran in The Washington Post, was headed The Right-Wing Coup in Family Planning. It claimed:

For two decades, poverty-stricken Third World countries have turned to the United States for help with their vital family planning efforts.

The aid has only cost you about a dollar a year, but the impact has been tremendous. Rapid population growth has slowed in some countries. In others, even the poorest families have been given the means to plan their own futures.

Millions of children have been spared the ravages of hunger. Thousands of women are alive today who would have died in their ninth or tenth or sixteenth pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood is proud to have played a leading role in helping the people in more than fifty nations help themselves. Where there was only desperation, we have brought hope.

Incredibly, however, everything we have achieved is now in jeopardy. In hot pursuit of an ideological victory, a handful of extremists at the White House and the Agency for International Development (A.I.D.) aim to destroy America's international family planning program and Planned Parenthood in particular.

Their motive? Unable to impose their fanatical anti-family planning agenda on the American people they have decided to victimize people who can't fight back.

It looks like an easy win to them. And the fact is, unless we fight back, hardship and suffering will come to those who rely on us for help.

The very survival of women and children is at stake in this battle. So are the long-term prospects for dozens of developing countries.14

The ad is a masterpiece. It totally ignores the main issue of the debate, which is whether American taxpayers should subsidize coercive programs of birth control. Readers are led to believe that Third World women beat a path to Planned Parenthood's door begging for assistance, whereas in fact, PP and other organizations put enormous pressure on these women to accept programs they don't want. And when persuasion doesn't work, they applaud coercive measures such as those in China. Food aid is given in such a manner as to force individuals into family planning programs. The ad claims, Millions of children have been spared the ravages of hunger, but doesn't say how: they were never allowed to be born. It implies that low birth rates promote economic development, whereas it is economic development that reduces birth rates.15

In 1966, India was suffering from massive starvation. Advisers to President Lyndon Johnson suggested that the U.S. ship wheat to India. Johnson demanded that the Indian government first agree to mount a massive birth control program. The Indians finally moved and Johnson released the wheat over a sufficiently extended period to make certain the birth control program was off the ground.16

Through AID and other groups, the U.S. government continued to promote this agenda. Some programs achieved their goals through the cynical manipulation of greed and peer pressure. Entire villages, for example, were promised food or money in exchange for persuading child-bearing couples to stop having children.

In one case, villagers in India were offered cash payments on condition that 75 percent of all men in the village submit to vasectomy; and in another Indian village, '100 percent of the eligible couples' accepted family planning, mostly vasectomy, in exchange for a new village well. Though the next step, the compulsory sterilization campaign, gave Indian family planning a rather bad press, with 3 million sterilized within six months in 1976 over the protests of numerous killed or wounded, the principle of 'motivation' stands unchallenged in foreign aid circles.17

In Indonesia, AID programs gave bonuses to individuals for recruiting clients for contraceptive services. Villages were assigned quotas, and if these quotas were met, the entire village was rewarded with food, health services, or other benefits.18 Kasun says that the foreign aid establishment prefers this system of group incentives because they avoid the appearance of paying individuals to use birth control or to have themselves sterilized. She writes, The woman who volunteers for IUD insertion in Indonesia will not only enjoy the village's food bonus but will earn her neighbours' gratitude for their share of the booty. Conversely, those who refuse this 'service' will be depriving their neighbours as well as themselves of food.19

In some cases, the methods used in Indonesia were less subtle. Harvard Professor Donald P. Warwick says, In the presence of civilian, military, and police leaders, women were taken to a house in which IUDs were being inserted. They were asked to go in one door and put under very strong pressure to accept an IUD before they could leave by another door. Whether this was coercion or heavy persuasion, it denied voluntary choice to acceptors.20

But what is behind all this preoccupation with overpopulation? Is it really concern for the welfare of the world's people? We have already seen that the population fear-mongers point to India, China, Africa, and Pakistan while ignoring New Jersey and England. In a fund-raising letter Planned Parenthood said:

Thai women and millions of other women like them in India, China, Africa, and throughout the developing nations control our destiny. Their decisions decisions of hundreds of millions of young women about their family's size control your future more securely, more relentlessly than the oil crisis or the nuclear arms race.

...unless population growth is harnessed and slowed to meet the limited resources and human services of these nations, development of nations will be shattered. Chaos, mass famine and war will continue to increase. We will be affected for better or worse.21

Notice the fear-mongering of this letter. It tells its predominantly white readers that women in India, China, and Africa control their destinies, and that these women cause chaos, mass famine, and war. There is no reference to the child-bearing women or high population density of any white country. It appears that overpopulation is a term used to describe countries inhabited by nonwhites only. Thomas Sowell notes the selective use of the overpopulation accusation as well. He points out, It should be noted, first of all, that rich people are never called 'teeming masses,' no matter how many of them there are per square mile. Wealthy Park Avenue neighbourhoods have concentrations of people that will compare with slums around the world.22 Perhaps overpopulation is the chic form that racism takes amongst white liberals. In the guise of concern, and in the name of environmentalism, white leftists can advocate coercive population control of blacks in Africa or of Asians in Thailand.

This is not a coincidence. In the early 1900s, a movement spread across the world to promote scientific breeding of people. Called eugenics, this movement was influential in all the major Western nations. Much concern was voiced about how the unfit over-reproduce. And, of course, the unfit were usually non-white (though some whites were deemed unfit, usually Catholics in a Protestant country, or the poor).

In 1912 the movement held the First International Congress of Eugenics. The purpose of the meeting was the prevention of the propagation of the unfit.23 Vice-presidents of the conference included Winston Churchill; the president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan; and the president emeritus of Harvard University, Charles Elliot. The major debate in the eugenics movement was not whether people should be sterilized, but who should be sterilized. Eugenicists in the U.S. persuaded many state governments to pass laws forcing unfit individuals to be sterilized. The state of Indiana passed a law allowing the sterilization of the mentally handicapped in 1907. Within six years, ten other states followed suit.24 By 1924 these laws had lead to the sterilization of almost 6,000 people.25 Almost all of them were poor or black. Compulsory sterilization was on statute books across the United States before it was introduced by the Nazis in Germany.

The American eugenics movement attracted a great deal of attention in Germany and helped legitimize Hitler's theories. Hitler himself praised the efforts of these advocates of racial purity. In Mein Kampf he lamented that individuals could be full citizens of a country without passing the necessary racial qualifications. The only bright spot that Hitler could find was the United States. He said:

At present there exists one State which manifests at least some modest attempts that show a better appreciation of how things ought to be done in this matter. It is not, however, in our model German Republic but in the U.S.A. that efforts are made to conform at least partly to the counsels of commonsense. By refusing immigrants to enter there if they are in a bad state of health, and by excluding certain races from the right to become naturalized as citizens, they have begun to introduce principles similar to those on which we wish to group the People's State.26

In 1935, an International Congress for Population Science was held in Berlin. The senior American delegate, Clarence G. Campbell, declared that Hitler had built his race policies on the ideas of eugenicists from around the world. The Nazi program, he said, was a comprehensive race policy of population development and improvement that promises to be epochal in racial history. These policies set the pattern which other nations and other racial groups must follow, if they do not wish to fall behind in their racial quality, in their racial accomplishment, and in their prospect of survival.27

Eugenic News, a major American publication of the population control movement, said in 1934:

One may condemn the Nazi policy generally, but specifically it remained for Germany in 1933 to lead the great nations of the world in the recognition of the biological foundations for national character. It is probable that the sterilization statutes of the several American states and the national sterilization statute of Germany will, in legal history, constitute a milestone which marks the control by the most advanced nations of the world of a major aspect of controlling human reproduction, comparable in importance only with the states' legal control of marriage.28

In 1935, Leon F. Whitney, secretary of the American Eugenics Society, expressed his support for the race policies of Hitler. Many far-sighted men and women in both England and America have long been working earnestly toward something very like what Hitler has now made compulsory.29 Eugenicist William W. Peter, secretary for the American Public Health Association, argued that Germany needed to follow radical measures to control the racial purity of the nation. Peter argued that the Germans were forced to depend more than ever upon their own resources but that these resources are much depleted. The conclusion was the present load of social irresponsibles are liabilities which represent a great deal of waste.30

Harry Laughlin, another prominent eugenicist, was so impressed with Nazi efforts that he purchased an English version of a Nazi propaganda film on sterilization. The film, produced by the Racial Political Office of the Nazi Party, was bought for a screening at the Carnegie Institution but later Laughlin raised money to have it edited for wider distribution. The film was retitled Eugenics in Germany, and was widely promoted by the Eugenics Research Association and the Pioneer Fund.31 The latter group continues to this day spending millions of dollars to promote eugenics and population control.

American support for Hitler and his population policies was not limited to verbal praise. The Rockefeller Foundation played a central role in establishing and sponsoring major eugenic institutes in Germany, including the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Eugenics, and Human Heredity.32

Support continued even after the German eugenics movements and these institutions were controlled by the Nazis. The Rockefeller Foundation to this day is a major funder of efforts to control population growth in Third World countries. The rhetoric, of course, has changed somewhat since the 1930s: it wouldn't be acceptable in liberal societies today to refer to non-whites as unfit. Instead, the literature focuses on environmental issues. But there is a direct connection between the population control movement of today and the eugenics movement of yesterday. In fact, it was within the eugenics movement that the modern population control organizations were born. Some of the most prominent advocates of birth control, like the sainted Margaret Sanger, were also very active in promoting eugenics. In her magazine, Birth Control Review, Sanger wrote in 1919, More children from the fit, less from the unfit that is the child issue of birth control.33 Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which became the Birth Control Federation, which is the parent of Planned Parenthood. Sanger opened the pages of her publication to prominent Nazis like Ernst Rudin who helped formulate German racial policies. His article in Birth Control Review called for state action to prevent the multiplication of bad stocks and increase the birth-rate of the sound average.34 Others, like the Population Reference Bureau of Guy Irving Burch, continue to operate today. Burch, in 1945, called for the compulsory sterilization of all persons who are inadequate, either biologically or socially.35 It is the PRB that takes credit for inventing the term population bomb.

These are some of the organizations that are used by AID to wage the war on population in the Third World. For political reasons, the U.S. government does not directly finance coercive sterilization or other Third World birth control programs. Instead, it channels funds to population groups in the States, which then transfer the money to the less savory programs in the non-white nations. AID also gives money to international 'private' organizations such as the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) and UNFPA and has them do the job.36 In 1977 an Irish newspaper reported a speech in which a top AID official has said the U.S. is seeking to provide the means to sterilize a quarter of all Third World women.37

The process for implementing this plan has been described by Julian Simon:

First, U.S. national policy as executed by AID aims to induce all people in other countries to use contraceptives whether or not they initially wish to. Second, in 1969-70 AID was able to exert pressure on U.S. universities, private U.S. foundations, and international organizations to move toward greater activism. This move was facilitated by the sudden big-bang join-up of population activists and environmentalists. Third, in order to avoid charges of interfering with foreign governments, AID gives U.S. taxpayers' money to private organizations to persuade foreign governments to alter their population policies. AID was not merely trying to help other countries achieve their own aims, but was (and still is) trying to pressure foreign governments to do what the U.S. population activists want to see done abroad.38

Margaret Wolfson of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development discussed how AID would use intermediary organizations to channel money into projects that were politically sensitive:

the relationship that has developed between Pathfinder [a private population control organisation] and AID works well and is to the advantage of both parties AID, which has always made extensive use of intermediary nongovernmental bodies in all sectors of its development program, finds that in the field of population assistance, Pathfinder, with its close and varied contact in developing countries, offers possibilities for action that it would often be difficult for it to take itself, operation on a direct government-to-government basis.39

Even a commission of the U.S. government, the Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy, admitted that racism motivated many supporters of birth control for the Third World: Rapid population growth occurs in nonwhite societies, and its continuation represents a threat to values inherent in western civilization as we know it. Nonwhite populations are less desirable because they are less capable and less productive. The Commission said that this type of thinking motivated key members of the Congress responsible for foreign aid authorization and appropriations, and some of the private citizens who have been associated with activities to curb rapid population growth.40

Simon contends that the same factors that motivate birth control programs around the world also motivate the policies of the birth control movement in the United States. For example, birth control clinics are disproportionately placed in black residential areas:

We can also learn about mixed motives from domestic experience with birth-control programs. The date of opening state-supported birth control clinics was closely related to the concentrations of poor black people in various states. As of 1965, 79 percent of the state-supported clinics in the United States were in the ten states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, which have only 19 percent of the country's population. Analysis that allows for per capita income shows that the proportion of blacks in a local population is closely related to the density of family planning clinics.

Can one be surprised that many white people in the United States want there to be fewer black people in the world? In sad truth, it is no more surprising than Hindus in India and Christians in Lebanon fearing a high Moslem birthrate, blacks in Uganda tossing out Indians, and so on throughout the world. But in this age when prejudice is not publicly acceptable, racist acts are justified on the basis of supposed economic, political, sociological, and environmental considerations.41

Thomas Littlewood hit the nail on the head when he said that in population politics, humanitarian and bigot can find room under the same tent.42

The shambles of Africa

Throughout the world living standards are improving, birth rates are falling, and population growth is steadily coming to a halt with one exception: Africa. In spite of foreign aid, or perhaps partly because of it, African countries are, in general, forced to make do with less and less food each year while their populations continue to expand. Whereas the Total Fertility Rate in South America dropped from 6.4 to 4.1 from 1950-55 to 1980-85, Africa's TFR remained almost stagnant over the same period, dropping only from 6.5 to 6.4.

But given that birth rates fall as economies grow, this is to be expected. Africa is the last continent on the planet where economic disasters are commonplace. With the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, even those countries are finally experiencing growth, but Africa, as a whole, continues to follow outmoded concepts of socialist planning and state control.

People often argue that countries are poor because they have too many people and not enough resources. But this just doesn't hold for Africa. The fact is that Africa is less densely populated than many of the wealthy countries of the world. With a land mass three times larger than the United States, for example, it has only twice the population.

Lord Bauer, in The Development Frontier, suggests that the lack of people in Africa may be the cause of some of the problems:

population growth can have favourable external effects. It can facilitate the more effective division of labour and thereby increase real incomes. In fact, in much of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sparseness of population inhibits economic advance. It retards the development of transport facilities and communications, and thus inhibits the movement of people and goods and the spread of new ideas and methods. These obstacles to enterprise and economic advance are particularly difficult to overcome.43

Bauer isn't alone in making this observation. A growing number of authorities believe that Africa is actually underpopulated. Africa is now the world's most sparsely populated continent (although it now has the most rapid population growth rate) and many parts of it are so sparsely populated that it is unable to support anything more than very rudimentary communications and transportation networks. The result is that the distribution and diffusion of goods, services, and ideas are severely retarded.44 The sparse population of Africa may be contributing to its economic malaise, but as we shall see it is not the main factor.

As for the second part of the argument that Africa is poor because there are not enough resources we know that some of the most developed countries in the world (e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Switzerland) are not blessed with natural resources. And Africa is one of the richest continents in the world. It is abundantly endowed with natural resources which for the most part are misused, unused, or squandered by corrupt governments. David Lamb notes that Africa

has 40 percent of the world's potential hydroelectric power supply; the bulk of the world's gold; 90 percent of its cobalt; 50 percent of its phosphates; 40 percent of its platinum; 7.5 percent of its coal; 8 percent of its known petroleum reserves; 12 percent of its natural gas; 3 percent of its iron ores; and millions upon millions of acres of unfilled farmland. There is not another continent blessed with such abundance.45

As far as food production is concerned, Africa's potential is staggering. Unfortunately, the reality is depressing. During the 1930s Africa was a food exporter. In the 1950s it was still self-sufficient. But with independence came a major decline in food production. D. Gale Johnson points out:

Africa had a constant average level of per capita food production during the 1950s and 1960s and a shocking decline during the 1970s. In 1980 per capita food production in Africa (excluding South Africa) was 15 percent below 1969-71. Total food production increased 10 percent while population grew by about 25 percent, resulting in an unprecedented decline in per capita food production. The decline in per capita food production was not due to a lack of resources but to many factors that were primarily political in nature the exploitation of farmers through low prices, civil unrest, military conflict, and the creation of millions of refugees.46

The decline in African food production has been astonishing. For instance, Mozambique produced 216,000 tons of cashew nuts in 1972, but only 1,000 in 1985; sugar production fell from 285,581 tons in 1974 to just 120,000 tons in 1982; maize production declined from 400,000 tons in 1972 to 200,000 by 1983; rice dropped from 111,000 tons in 1972 to 30,000 tons in 1983; and bananas fell from 280,000 tons in 1972 to just 73,000 tons in 1983.47

Ethiopia offers another example of a richly endowed country destroyed by socialist policies and corrupt government. The New York Times once said that Ethiopia could easily become the breadbasket for much of Europe if her agriculture were better organized.48 Agronomist Doreen Warriner wrote, Ethiopia is one of those rare countries so richly endowed by nature that the agrarian structure, feudal in every sense of the term, does appear to be the only constraint on development.49 Ethiopia did abandon its feudal system in 1974 not for capitalism, however, but for a radical brand of communism under Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam. The new government rapidly turned Ethiopia into a basket case, not a breadbasket.

Thousands were killed by the government, including Emperor Haile Selassie and many of his family, and more than 30,000 were jailed. Peasant farmers were uprooted from their land in one of the most massive relocation programs the world has known: an estimated 75 percent of the populace was forcibly moved. One Ethiopian bureaucrat announced, It is our duty to move the peasants if they are too stupid to move by themselves. Land was nationalized in the name of the people, and food production plummeted. Famine quickly appeared and the capitalist West poured food relief into the country, but Mengistu simply used the food as a political weapon, allowing tens of thousands of people to starve to death. While the country was in the grip of famine, Mengistu spent almost $200 million celebrating the tenth anniversary of socialism in the country. Caviar and champagne, lobster and salmon were imported for the Marxist elite to consume and $10 million was spent just to refurbish the statues of Marx, Lenin, and Engels that decorated the streets of Addis Ababa. When the people finally had enough and overthrew Mengistu, he fled to Mugabe's Zimbabwe where he was welcomed with open arms.50

Tanzania also destroyed free markets in favour of state control and socialism, with similar results. The problems in Tanzania began when president Julius Nyerere issued the Arusha Declaration, a plan for turning the country into a socialist paradise. The major industries were socialised and massive resettlement programs were forced on the people. The old villages were destroyed and the peasant farmers forced into collectives. Government regulations required that food be sold to the government. Again, food production plummeted and people could no longer find enough to eat.51 Swedish economist Sven Rydenfelt tells what happened:

By 1979, five years after the enforced resettlement, domestic agricultural production in Tanzania was already incapable of providing the cities with food. Imports had to be increased to compensate for declining production, and in 1980 no less than half of the food needed by Tanzania was being imported. A decade of socialist agricultural policy had been sufficient to destroy the socio-ecological system.52

Rydenfelt quotes a Norwegian newspaper that reported, Large sectors of the production system stand still, food lines in the capital city of Dar es Salaam were never longer, and shop shelves never more empty.53 According to World Bank statistics, the Tanzanian economy contracted on average 0.5 percent each year between 1965 and 1988, and personal consumption dropped by 43 percent.54 A Norwegian radio commentator who visited Tanzania in 1982 reported:

On days when bread was delivered to the stores, people had to line up for hours. Even commodities like soap, toothpaste, salt, flour, cooking oil, batteries and bandages were lacking. People starve, and starving people get desperate... The brutal truth is that the policy of President Nyerere has completely failed.... The Tanzanians are unable to manage the many state enterprises, and today production is only 30 percent of its volume a few years ago.55

In Ghana, the same story was repeated. President Nkrumah announced that he would rule the country with African socialism. Ghana was doing well in 1960, largely because of its cocoa production; that year it produced 439,000 tons of cocoa. The government saw this as a gold mine and decreed that all cocoa must be sold to a government marketing board at prices well below world prices. The results weren't felt immediately they rarely are. In fact, cocoa production increased to 581,000 tons in 1964, but then the effects of the policies kicked in. By 1970 production was down to 406,000 tons, by 1978 to 270,000 tons and in 1982 to 225,000 tons. In other words, the socialist price controls and marketing board had managed to destroy over half of Ghana's cocoa production in just two decades.56

The state farms created by Nkrumah were predictably a failure. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey writes:

In 1965 the state farms barely produced enough food to feed their own workers, let alone the nation. After only three years of operation these government farms had accumulated losses of over $15 million. Between 1960 and 1966 local food prices doubled as a result of these shortages. The reaction of the Nkrumah government to rising food prices was one of paranoia. Instead of acknowledging the shortfalls in food production, Nkrumah blamed neocolonialist agents and economic saboteurs.57

Ayittey notes that instead of learning from Nkrumah's failure one country after another, with deadly consistency, followed in his footsteps: Guinea, Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Tanzania, Zambia, and a host of others.58 The results everywhere were the same: in each country tyranny followed, economies were ruined, and the nationalists were ousted by the military. Incredibly, 25 years after the failure of Nkrumah's socialist experiment, Zimbabwe was charging obstinately along the same disastrous lines.59

While the governments of Africa have ploughed along the socialist path, the people have seen their incomes deteriorate and their once-productive nations become centres of starvation. Average incomes have been declining: the countries of sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) have an average per capita income of only $210. And while Africa is the only continent in which incomes have declined, averaging a 0.1 percent decline per year for the last two decades, what is most alarming is that the rate of decline has been accelerating.60

But the failure of Africa is the failure of socialism, not the failure of Africans. The same policies in Russia and China led to similar results. That is why both nations have abandoned socialism and moved toward capitalism. Ecocide a book exposing the environmental disasters of state socialism, noted that the food crisis that continually dogged the Soviet Union was not caused by bad farmers. Soviets can farm well. On their private plots just 1 or 2 percent of all land they produced 'about two-thirds of the potatoes and eggs and about 40 percent of meat, milk and vegetables' consumed in the mid-1960s. On those tiny patches of ground, they worked for themselves hard and productively. On the huge holdings of the state and collective farms, their performance was miserable, even dangerous.61

David Osterfeld says that the results of African socialism were predictable:

Not only were they what one would expect from elementary economic theory: they were also what one could observe after a half century of experience with socialism in the Second World. The (former) Soviet Union contains some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. Prior to the communist revolution in 1917, Russia was the world's largest exporter of grain. Collectivization of agriculture during the 1920s and 1930s was quickly followed by dramatic declines in output. Between 5 and 10 million Russians died of starvation during these years, with 12 to 13 million more saved by food donated by the Western capitalist countries. By the 1980s the Soviet Union employed 25 percent of its labour force and invested in excess of 25 percent of its capital in agriculture, both figures far higher than in any other industrialized country. Despite its tremendous agricultural potential, the Soviet Union became the world's largest food importer. It imported nearly one-third of its food, and this is despite having grudgingly permitted the establishment of private minifarms one-half to one acre in size. These private plots made up only 3 percent of the total crop land, yet produced 27 percent of the nation's food.

.... The pattern is repeated with monotonous regularity throughout socialist countries. Most of the Eastern European countries are blessed with fertile agricultural land and, prior to socialism, were food exporters. The adoption of socialist policies in most of these was quickly followed by declining production, food shortages, and bread lines. Zinsmeister notes that between 1960 and 1980 agricultural productivity declined by one-third in the Soviet Bloc.

Agricultural output in China was virtually stagnant during the 25-year reign of Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese government now acknowledges that during just one three-year period, the so-called Three Difficult Years from 1959-1962, between 25 and 30 million Chinese died from starvation. By the time of Mao's death in the mid 1970s, the average Chinese was less well fed than he was during the 1920s or even during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s. Beginning in 1977, Mao's successors abandoned his socialist experiment. As a result, says The Economist, food grain output has increased by 12 percent a year since then, despite bad weather in 1980.62

In 1989, Yury Chernichenko, a member of the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies, told the assembly, A coercive system of farming will never feed the people.63 That is a lesson many countries in Africa have yet to learn.

Apartheid and overpopulation

For 45 years South African politics has been totally dominated by the issue of apartheid. Opponents of apartheid used every means possible to discredit and destroy the system, and that is perfectly understandable. As a result, however, apartheid has been blamed for many social ills that it had nothing to do with creating. For example, Barbara Klugman, an anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, oversteps the facts when she attempts to prove that overpopulation in South Africa is a result of apartheid. To be fair, she does not argue that apartheid is entirely responsible; she believes some of the blame must be laid at the door of the developed nations of the world. She vigorously defends the people of Africa from the charge that poverty is the result of high birth rates. As noted earlier, this is one area where I agree with her.

To Klugman, the overpopulation issue is one of colonial exploitation and apartheid. Third World countries are poor because First World countries are rich. There is no mutually beneficial trade in her analysis. Trade is exploitation. She says:

the relative wealth of the First World derives directly from its use of Third World resources and Third World markets on terms of trade which have always been advantageous to the First World. It is incorrect to see the wealth of the First World, and the poverty of the Third World, as simple facts which bear no relation to each other.64

Lord Bauer has debunked this myth quite thoroughly. He points out that the countries of the developed world were wealthy compared to so-called Third World nations long before they ever had contact with each other. First World wealth did not depend on Third World resources in the past, nor does it do so today. Various studies have shown that colonialism tended to be economically unprofitable for the colonial powers and that they spent more money on the colonies than they earned from them. In fact, contrary to Klugman's theory, the more trade Third World countries have with First World nations, the wealthier they become. If First World wealth is created by taking advantage of Third World nations, then those Third World nations with the least amount of international trade should be the wealthiest: Hong Kong and Singapore should be sinking into poverty whereas Zimbabwe and Cuba should be economic miracles. In the real world, of course, the facts are completely the reverse. Those Third World countries that have high economic growth and prosperity are also those countries that have the greatest amount of trade with the First World.

Klugman is a fervent critic of apartheid and it is a fairly safe bet that she supported trade sanctions against South Africa. Yet, according to her own theory, sanctions should have increased South Africa's wealth. If the First World exploits its Third World trading partners, then the greater the trade South Africa had with the First World the less capable the South African government would have been of implementing apartheid.

Like others on the left, Klugman sees overpopulation as a problem of resource distribution not of resource production. Typically, the solution they offer is to confiscate the wealth of the First World and redistribute it, not to promote economic policies that would enable Third World countries to become prosperous and self-sufficient. According to their analysis, the crisis in Ethiopia should not be laid at the door of the Ethiopian Marxists who destroyed that nation: the real criminals are the wealthy people in North America and Europe who consume too much. The fact that Africa was once able to feed itself (under the evil colonialists whom Klugman despises) is irrelevant: the poverty/overpopulation problem is not caused by some people having too little, but by others having too much.

Klugman writes: The argument that the poor of the Third World use proportionately more of the world's resources, while contributing less to the world's GDP, compounds the victim-blaming syndrome. People in the First World consume more resources than those in the Third World.65 But that is not the point. The problem that Third World nations face is not how much they consume, but the fact that they are not able to produce a surplus. The First World is wealthy because it produces more than it consumes, thus allowing the accumulation of capital and other resources. The Third World is poor because it produces barely enough to survive, and sometimes not even that. What the wealthy and the poor consume relative to each other is unimportant. What is crucial is what each produces relative to what they, themselves, consume. What role did apartheid play in causing overpopulation in South Africa, according to Klugman? She simply asserts that apartheid laws upset the balance between population and resources, and hence between population and the environment. Not only has it created massive inequalities in the use of resources, but it has also resulted in a high population growth rate.66 Does this argument make sense? If high population growth rates are caused by apartheid, then why are there high population growth rates in the rest of Africa where there is no apartheid? Why did England experience a soaring population growth rate during the industrial revolution? Why have there been high growth rates in virtually every poverty-stricken nation in the world when they first began to develop economically? The coloureds in South Africa were surely victims of apartheid as well, yet their population growth rate is almost identical to that of South African whites.

Klugman errs in equating high population density with overpopulation. Early in her essay she shows that countries with high population densities are not necessarily overpopulated. But then she says, There is overcrowding because people have been forced into the 'homelands' instead of being allowed to remain on the land on which they were born or move to urban areas.67 Now, of course, overpopulation and population density are not the same thing. Most African poverty is found in the less densely populated rural areas, not in areas of high population density like Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Africans continue to flood into Hillbrow because they have a better chance of improving their living standards. As I have pointed out earlier, high population density has certain economic advantages and that is true in South Africa as well. Apartheid, in fact, attempted to prevent blacks from moving from the less populated rural areas to the more densely populated cities.

Finally, Klugman attempts to debunk the claim that high population growth rates in South Africa are the result of lower mortality rates: The other misconception held by the overpopulation theorists is that the population growth rate among Africans is high because the mortality rate has dropped through access to modern medicine.68 The way Klugman attempts to disprove this theory is to point out that black South Africans don't have the same access to medicine as do white South Africans. Again, she misses the point. What is relevant here is how much access black Africans have to medicine today compared to 20 years ago or 100 years ago. While black South Africans do not have the same access to medical care as whites, they have more access today than they did a hundred years ago, and mortality rates have declined. The average life expectancy in Africa for blacks has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. Africans today have more access to modern medicine than at any time in history, and as a result they are living longer. Since birth rates in Africa have remained steady, the increase in population density should be expected.

In her attempt to blame apartheid for overpopulation and poverty, Klugman distorts reality. It is not population numbers that threaten South Africa, but the lack of access to resources on the one hand and the over consumption of resources on the other. It is not the poor themselves who have caused their poverty, by having many children, but the practice of discrimination.69

The causes of poverty are complex. Certainly discrimination alone is not sufficient to cause poverty, as the Jews and the Chinese have proved the world over. Moreover, the high population growth rates South Africa is experiencing are not at all unique they have been experienced all over the world by many different societies, including all the nations currently deemed to be First World.

More importantly, the solution to these problems requires more than the dismantling of apartheid. A more equitable distribution of resources (i.e. socialist re distributive policies) is not the way to solve South Africa's, or the world's, remaining overpopulation problem. As we have seen, everywhere socialism has been tried, the problem grew worse because food production and resource recovery suffered severely. To solve its problems, South Africa must deregulate its heavily regulated economy and increase its trade with the First World. Instead of simply redistributing the relatively little wealth that already exists, South Africa needs a growing economy that creates new wealth. The only method yet discovered to do that is through the forces of a relatively free market with private property.


This paper has tackled some rather difficult issues difficult not because the evidence is lacking for the ideas it has presented, but because the ideas run contrary to much modern mythology. It has shown that the world is not overpopulated in any meaningful sense of the word, that food production per capita is increasing, that there is plenty of room for all of us, and more than enough natural resources to meet our needs for thousands of years to come.

Overpopulation is blamed for hunger and famine everywhere, particularly in Africa. But, as this paper has shown, Africa is the least densely populated of all the continents and has the ability to feed the entire world twice over. Yet still Africa is impoverished. A continent blessed with abundant resources and capable of feeding the world is starving. Poverty is so commonplace that it is expected. A scapegoat must be found. The accepted theory is that it is the fault of the Africans themselves. They reproduce too quickly and that is why they are starving. It is a classic case of blaming the victim.

The people of Africa are the victims of inept governments that have attempted to impose socialism and regulated economies on countries that can't afford these wealth-destroying policies. They deserve better than this.

The good news for the people of Africa is that they need not suffer in poverty any longer. The solution is simple: free the people to produce; allow the people to keep what they produce; and the people will produce.

Population Density per square mile: European versus African countries

European countries

African countries

Monaco 38,666 Rwanda (pre-1994) 747
Vatican City 6,666 Burundi 526
San Marino 958 Nigeria 333
Netherlands 919 Gambia 204
Belgium 840 Malawi 199
United Kingdom 606 Uganda 192
Germany 563 Ghana 166
Italy 496 Togo 163
Liechtenstein 484 Lesotho 150
Switzerland 415 Sierre Leone 150
Luxembourg 370 Morocco 148
Poland 318 Egypt 142
Czechoslovakia (former) 318 Tunisia 128
Denmark 309 Swaziland 116
Portugal 296 Kenya 113
Albania 295 Senegal 102
Hungary 294 Ethiopia 101
Andorra 282 Ivory Coast 97
France 267 Burkina Faso 85
Romania 254 South Africa 84
Yugoslavia (former) 254 Guinea 77
Austria 244 Tanzania 71
Bulgaria 234 Zimbabwe 68
Spain 203 Guinea-Bissau 67
Greece 198 Liberia 62
Ireland 198 Cameroon 60
Sweden 48 Madagascar 52
Finland 38 Mozambique 48
Norway 28 Zaire 39
  Djibouti 38
Somalia 34
Equatorial Guinea 31
Zambia 28
Sudan 26
Angola 20
Mali 19
Congo 17
Niger 17
Central African Republic 12
Gabon 12
Benin 11
Chad 10
Libya 6
Botswana 5
Mauritania 5
Namibia 4
Source: Based on statistics in Info 92 (London: Random Century, 1992).



  1. Quoted in John Maddox, The Doomsday Syndrome, p. 47
  2. Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968), p.xi. .
  3. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource, p.311 .
  4. Ibid, p.315.
  5. David Irving, The War Path: Hitler's Germany 1933-1939 (London: Papermac, 1985) p.67.
  6. Quoted in Nick Eberstadt, The Poverty of Communism, p.117.
  7. Christopher Wren, Chinese Region Showing Resistance to National Goals for Birth Control, New York Times, May 16, 1982.
  8. Steven Mosher, Why are Baby Girls being Killed in China? Wall Street Journal, July 25, 1983.
  9. Quoted in Julian Simon, Population Matters, p.231.
  10. Washington Post, April 10, 1988, p.B1.
  11. Jacqueline Kasun, The War Against Population, p.90.
  12. Nick Eberstadt, The Poverty of Communism, p.117..
  13. Quoted in Julian Simon, Population Matters, p.235.
  14. The Washington Post, March 12, 1987, p. A17.
  15. The ad also ignored a question that many taxpayers would liked answered: should a tax- funded organization be directly involved in a lobbying campaign to affect legislation?
  16. Joseph Califano, Governing America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), p.52.
  17. Kasun, The War Against Population, p.85. .
  18. Ibid, p.84
  19. Ibid
  20. Simon, Population Matters, p.226.
  21. Simon, The Ultimate Resource, p.327.
  22. Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race, pp.209-210.
  23. Kasun, The War Against Population, p.159. .
  24. Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.17.
  25. Ibid, p.24
  26. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (London: Hurst and Blackett Ltd., 1939) p.367.
  27. Kühl, The Nazi Connection, p.34.
  28. Ibid, p.46.
  29. Ibid, p.36.
  30. Ibid, p.55. .
  31. Ibid, p.49.
  32. Ibid, p.20.
  33. Kasun, The War Against Population, p.160.
  34. Ibid. .
  35. Elmer Pendell, Population Roads to Peace or War (Washington: Population Reference Bureau, 1945), p.103.
  36. Simon, The Ultimate Resource, p.294.
  37. Population Control of Third World Planned: Sterilisation Storm in U.S., Evening Press (Dublin, Ireland? May 12, 1977, p. 9.
  38. Simon, The Ultimate Resource, p. 297.
  39. Margaret Wolfson, Profiles in Population Assistance, Development Centre of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1983, p.173.
  40. Simon, Population Matters, pp.228-229.
  41. Ibid, p.229.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Bauer, The Development Frontier, p. 26.
  44. Osterfeld, Prosperity Versus Planning, p.128.
  45. David Lamb, The Africans (New York: Vantage, 1983), p.20.
  46. D. Gale Johnson, World Food and Agriculture, in Simon and Kahn, The Resourceful Earth, p.73.
  47. Don Caldwell, South Africa: The New Revolution (Johannesburg: FMF Books, 1989), p.219.
  48. Osterfeld, Prosperity Versus Planning, p. 72.
  49. Gene Ellis, Land Tenancy Reform in Ethiopia, Economic Development and Cultural Change (April 1980), p.526.
  50. George Ayittey, Africa Betrayed (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp.107- 108.
  51. Ibid, p.107. .
  52. Sven Rydenfelt, A Pattern for Failure (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1983), p.121.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ayittey, Africa Betrayed, p. 282,
  55. Rydenfelt, A Pattern for Failure, pp.123-124.
  56. Ibid, pp.110-111.
  57. Ayittey, Africa Betrayed, p.168.
  58. Ibid, p. 170.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Osterfeld, Prosperity Versus Planning, p.73.
  61. Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Jr., Ecocide in the USSR (London: Aurum Press, 1992), p.50
  62. Osterfeld, Prosperity Versus Planning, p. 82. For a more thorough analysis of how communist economics breeds poverty see Nick Eberstadt, The Poverty of Communism (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1990).
  63. Feshback and Friendly, Ecocide in the USSR, p. 50.
  64. Klugman, in Going Green, p.76.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid, p.71.
  67. Ibid, p.73.
  68. Ibid, p.74.
  69. Ibid, p.77.

Also by Jim Peron:

The Myth of Overcrowding, Part 1: Are We Really Overcrowded?
The Myth of Overcrowding, Part 2: Population Politics



Peron, Jim. Population Politics and the Shambles of Africa. Chapter 4 in Exploding Population Myths. Vancouver, B.C.: The Fraser Institute, 1995.

The Fraser Institute is an independent Canadian economic and social research and educational organization. For more information on the Fraser Institute and its publications write 626 Bute Street, Vancouver, B.C. Canada V6E 3M1.

Exploding Population Myths may be ordered from Aristotle's Books in New Zealand. Email orders to

The Author

Jim Peron is the Executive Director of the Institute for Liberal Values. He is the co-author, with Jim Lewis, of the book Liberty Reclaimed, the editor of the book The Liberal Tide, and the author of the forthcoming book The Road Not Taken: Resolving the Crisis on the Roads.

The other chapters of Exploding Population Myths can be found on the Institute for Liberal Values web site.

Copyright © 1995 Jim Peron
back to top