Is Haiti “Overpopulated?”
Talk about blaming the victim. Pat Robertson says the misery inflicted by the Haitian earthquake is payback for “a pact with the devil.” Rush Limbaugh blames the nation’s “communist” leadership. And according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Haiti’s desperate poverty is a result of “progress-resistant cultural influences.“
Throughout the media coverage, “overpopulation” is hyped as another explanation for Haiti’s poverty and vulnerability to disaster. One former U.S. diplomat told CNN that Haiti is overpopulated because its people know nothing of birth control. The mainstream news media subtly reinforce this theme with frequent references to Haiti’s high fertility rate (four children per woman) and large youthful population (nearly 40% of which is aged 15 and under). It’s even more overt in cyberspace, where commenters openly blame population growth for Haiti’s troubles–see, for example, comment #5 here.
So, is Haiti “overpopulated”? To what extent is high fertility and rapid population growth an underlying cause of Haitian poverty? To answer that question, we first need to unpack the concept of “overpopulation.”
When we say that a community or nation is overpopulated, we imply that its numbers have grown too large in relation to the stock of available resources. But here’s the rub: resources are often distributed so inequitably that it’s impossible to determine how many people they can support.
In many poor countries, subsistence farmers work hard to coax a living from tiny parcels of land, while large plantations—owned by agribusiness or local elites—produce bountiful harvests for export. Rapid population growth worsens the plight of the subsistence farmers, whose holdings grow smaller with each succeeding generation, but inequity—rather than population growth—is at the heart of the problem.
This is certainly true in Haiti. Rapid population growth magnifies the problems of poor Haitians; high fertility means more mouths to feed, more young people to educate and employ. But to understand the root causes of Haitian poverty, we must remember the nation’s sordid history of exploitation, corruption and misrule.
The story of Haiti’s immiseration is a long one, whose villains include French colonizers and Haitian elites. It may be hard to believe, but Haiti–now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere–was once the richest colony in the world. In the eighteenth century, the “Pearl of the Antilles” produced prodigious crops of sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and indigo—accounting for half of France’s GNP. Fortunes were made from the richness of Haiti’s soil and the labor of its people—slaves imported from Africa and literally worked to death. Most of that wealth left the island, never to return.
Also gone forever is a good part of the nation’s soil: while wealthy interests helped themselves to the fertile bottom lands, poor farmers were forced to cultivate steep hillsides, and the resulting deforestation and erosion has washed much of Haiti’s once-rich soil into the sea.
The U.S. also played a starring role in Haiti’s impoverishment. Soon after the slave revolt that established Haiti as an independent nation in 1804, Thomas Jefferson, fearful that such revolts might prove contagious, led an international boycott of the fledgling country. We directly occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, with U.S. bankers reaping the profits from Haiti’s still plentiful harvests. Later, we propped up the brutal (but reliably anti-communist) Duvalier dictatorships.
Centuries of such exploitation have left Haiti in dire shape. We’ve heard the mind-numbing statistics: nearly three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day; two-thirds of workers are not formally employed; fully half of Haitian adults are illiterate. Even before the earthquake, Haitians were reduced to eating cakes made of mud to stave off hunger.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that Haiti’s population growth is a symptom, not a cause, of its poverty. Over the last half century, population growth rates have slowed in most parts of the world, but they remain high in places like Haiti, where poverty is severe and the status of women is low. Why? Where child mortality rates are high and social “safety nets” nonexistent, poor couples have many children to ensure that some will survive, and to help provide for them in old age. And, where women are denied education, opportunity and the full legal and social rights of citizenship, they must rely on childbearing as a source of status and security.
This point is made powerfully in M. Catherine Maternowska’s Reproducing Inequities: Poverty and the Politics of Population in Haiti. Maternowska worked for a dozen years in the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil, where she documented the failure of a well-intentioned effort to promote family planning. As Helen Epstein writes in a review of Reproducing Inequities:
…One reason the program failed was that the precarious economic situation in Cité Soleil had made fairly regular childbearing a virtual necessity for many women. In order to survive, poor women had to rely on men, and the only way to secure a man’s loyalty was by bearing his children. But Haitian men had problems of their own. Most were unemployed or were forced to compete for the small number of day-labor jobs working on building sites or hauling charcoal in the slums. These difficulties, rather than discouraging the men from having children, apparently challenged their sense of masculinity, sometimes prompting macho demands that their women not use contraception because it would make them “loose” or promiscuous.
“You just keep having children. This is how you keep a man,” Sylvia, mother of twelve, told Maternowska. “If you don’t give [children] to him, he doesn’t give [money] to you…. And sometimes even if you do give, you lose anyhow. Life is hard.”
Of course, Haitians desperately need family planning and reproductive health services. Only a quarter of Haitian women use modern methods of contraception, and—partly as a result—the island nation has the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the western hemisphere. Increased contraceptive use would improve public health and reduce pressure on Haiti’s severely depleted resources. But, as Maternowska learned, it’s not enough to simply offer family planning services. Programs must address the underlying inequities—gender and economic—that lead people to want large families. Change is possible, however: Maternowska found that Haitian family planning programs worked best where they were linked to broader efforts to improve people’s lives. One project, which combined pig farming, small business loans and family planning, reported much more positive results than the stand-alone family planning project in Cité Soleil.
“Overpopulation” is no more the root cause of Haiti’s misery than Pat Robertson’s loopy “pact with the devil.” Yes, Haiti has high rates of population growth, which makes its environmental and social problems more difficult to solve. And yes, Haitians need access to quality family planning and reproductive health care services—as all people do. But the real underlying causes of Haiti’s despair are poverty and injustice. If we hope to help the Haitian people build a nation that is stable, self-sufficient and resilient, we must address those root causes.
Population and the environment: A progressive, feminist approach
In “The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go,” Betsy Hartmann implies that everyone working on population-environment issues is part of a misogynistic plot to bring back “population control.”
I’m here to tell you she is wrong.
I am a lifelong, card-carrying feminist and political progressive. I am passionately committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights, to environmental sustainability, and to closing the inequitable divide between men and women, rich and poor. And I believe that slowing population growth—by ensuring that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing—will contribute to those ends.
I’m not alone. Over the last couple of years, I have helped bring together feminists, environmentalists, and reproductive health activists to develop an approach to population and environment issues that is grounded in human rights and social justice. Our efforts culminated in a new contributed volume, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, published by Island Press in October.
We also helped launch a new campus movement. The “population justice” effort that Hartmann maligns is a partnership of the Sierra Club, the International Women’s Health Coalition, Advocates for Youth, Americans for Informed Democracy, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom. Our goals are to increase U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health; to provide comprehensive sexuality education in the U.S.; and to pass the Global Poverty Act and implement the Millennium Development Goals. Population control is not on the agenda.
Now, there are many, many points on which Betsy Hartmann and I are in complete agreement. For example, I agree that the relationship between population dynamics and environmental quality is complex, and that it is best viewed through the prism of inequity. It is the affluent countries’ unsustainable systems of production and consumption—not population growth in the global South—that have caused climate change and most of the environmental crises we face.
And we do face environmental crises. Human-induced climate change is threatening the very habitability of our planet. And it’s not just the climate: From acidifying oceans to depleted aquifers, the natural systems we depend upon are nearing “tipping points,” beyond which they may not recover.
It is the very people Hartmann seeks to protect who will suffer the most. The United Nations Development Program says that for the world’s most marginalized citizens, the consequences of climate change and other environmental crises “could be apocalyptic.” Women, who comprise the majority of the world’s poor, are on the front lines of the crisis—walking farther to collect water, working harder to coax crops from dry soil, coping with plagues of drought, flood and disease.
Against that backdrop, consider our demographic future. World population now stands at 6.8 billion. While the rate of growth has slowed in most parts of the world, our numbers still increase by 75 million to 80 million every year, the numerical equivalent of adding another U.S. to the world every four years or so. A certain amount of future growth is inevitable, but choices made today will determine whether world population reaches anywhere between 8 billion and 11 billion by the middle of the century.
So, what happens if we add another 4 billion people—each with an inalienable right to food, water, and the makings of a good life—to our very stressed planet? Almost all of that growth will take place in the developing countries, which is also where rapid development must occur so that the 3 billion people who now live on less than $2 a day can escape from poverty.
For us in the affluent countries, the problem is overconsumption—our bankrupt economic system devours natural resources, yet fails to meet human needs. For people in the developing world, the problem is underconsumption; that same economic system fosters poverty and inequity that deprives people of the resources they need to survive. So we need to consume less, they need to consume more, and we all need to consume differently—to find ways to meet human needs without destroying the natural systems that sustain life.
If we take seriously the need to protect the planet and distribute its resources more equitably, it becomes clear that it would be easier to provide a good life—at less environmental cost—for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people. Indeed, the only scenario in which population growth doesn’t matter for the environment is one where the current divide between rich and poor remains fixed for all time. Surely we agree that such a scenario is cruel beyond imagining.
The most sophisticated science on population and the environment accounts for low-income countries’ need to develop. Take climate change, for example. An analysis of climate studies by Brian O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that when you consider the future trajectory of carbon emissions, population size matters—a lot. O’Neill estimates that stabilizing world population at 8 billion, rather than 9 billion or more, would eliminate one billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050– as much as completely ending deforestation.
Of course, slowing population growth is not all we must do. Continued reliance on fossil fuels could easily overwhelm any carbon emission reductions from slower growth. Still, slowing population growth is part of what we must do to avert catastrophic climate change.
Does that justify a new program of coercive population control? Absolutely not. Population control is not the solution to climate change. It’s not even the solution to slowing population growth.
And no one from the mainstream reproductive health and rights movement is making that claim. As Hartmann acknowledges, over the last two decades feminist reformers shifted the focus of international family planning programs from an emphasis on meeting demographic targets to meeting individual needs for sexual and reproductive health. Those reformers also fought for—and won—a groundbreaking international agreement on population issues at a 1994 UN meeting in Cairo.
The Cairo agreement says that the best way to achieve a sustainable world is by making sure that all people can make real choices about childbearing. That means access to voluntary family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It means education and employment opportunities, especially for women. And it means tackling the deep inequities—gender and economic—that limit choices for many.
The Cairo agreement helped transform the culture of the international family planning movement. But its ambitious agenda has not been fully realized, for lack of funding and political will. Now we have a chance to change that. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have a President—and a Secretary of State—who are sympathetic to our cause. It is possible that growing concern about climate change and other environmental issues could help mobilize funds for sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s empowerment and other elements of the Cairo agreement.
But I agree with Hartmann that the debate could easily take us in a different direction. As the connection between population growth and the environment becomes clear, we are hearing more calls for “population control.” For example, a book by an environmental journalist proposes a mandatory “one child per human mother” policy. And there have been less overtly coercive, but still deeply troubling proposals—for example, for a “carbon tax” on families that choose to have more than two children.
How should we respond to these dangerous proposals—as feminists, as people who care about the environment and human well-being?
Not by pretending that human numbers are irrelevant to environmental sustainability. And not by labeling anyone who talks about population a “misogynist,” a “racist,” or “faux-feminist.”
Instead, we can engage constructively in the emerging public conversation about population and the environment—and bring to it our voices, our values, our lived experience. We can acknowledge that slowing population growth is one of many things we can do to build a sustainable, equitable future. And—most importantly—we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice.
The Population-Climate Change Link: Opportunity and Danger
The debate about population growth and climate change is heating up. First, researchers at Oregon State University showed that having fewer children is among the best ways for Americans to limit their carbon footprint. Then the UK’s Optimum Population Trust (OPT) came out with a report claiming that contraception is five times cheaper than conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change.
The new attention to population growth and climate change presents an opportunity—and also a danger.
On the opportunity side, it could generate new support for family planning and reproductive health services, girls’ education, and other ethical means to slow population growth—the long neglected “Cairo agenda,” which the world’s nations endorsed at a UN conference in 1994, then promptly forgot.
The danger is that it could revive calls for numbers-driven “population control.” In the past, those programs trampled people’s rights and health in pursuit of lower birthrates. Where the focus is on numbers, abuses of human rights are common. There are, of course, the notorious examples: China’s one-child policy and the forced abortions used to implement it; and the sterilization camps of India’s emergency period in the 1970s, where thousands died of botched operations.
And there were seemingly more benign policies of incentives and disincentives, which actually punished the poorest and most vulnerable. In India, children were expelled from school if their parents refused to be sterilized. Other policies forced the poor to make a Hobbesian choice between fertility and survival. In Bangladesh in the 1980s, flood victims who refused sterilization were denied emergency food aid.
The family planning/reproductive health movement has come a long way since then. While some abuses persist (notably in China), the movement as a whole has been revolutionized from within. As Michele Goldberg recounts in her wonderful book, The Means of Reproduction, a new generation of feminists rose through the ranks of the family planning movement and shifted the focus from fertility control to sexual and reproductive rights and health.
Reproductive health advocates understand that when a woman has a 1 in 6 chance of dying in childbirth; that when her kids are getting sick and dying of preventable disease, she needs more than an IUD. They understand that the same woman is more likely to visit a clinic that addresses her full range of needs, and treats her with respect. And they showed that a broader approach to reproductive health and rights can improve maternal and child health, prevent STDs and lower fertility.
This was a paradigm shift in population and family planning, and it formed the basis of a new global agreement at a 1994 UN population conference in Cairo. At that meeting, environmentalists, feminists, and other civil society groups from around the world helped produce a plan of action that was endorsed by 179 nations.
The Cairo agreement says that choosing the number and timing of one’s own children is an inalienable human right. It acknowledges that slowing population growth is one of the things we need to do to build a sustainable future. And it shows that the best way to slow population growth is not with top-down population control, but by making sure that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.
Where the Cairo agenda has been implemented, the effects have been dramatic. Where reproductive health services are available, where couples are confident their children will survive, where girls go to school, where young women and men have economic opportunity, couples have healthier–and smaller—families.
But governments haven’t kept the promises they made in Cairo. While developing countries are spending about half of what they promised in Cairo, developed countries have delivered less than a quarter of the promised funding. The cost is not huge: the developed countries’ share of the cost to provide reproductive health services for every woman on earth is $20 billion—about what the bankers on Wall Street gave themselves in bonuses last year. The US share is $1 billion—about a fifth of what we spend in Afghanistan each month.
Now we are at a crossroads. We can move forward on the path charted in Cairo; or we could head back to population control. There are ominous signs: Time Magazine, in a teaser for an article about the OPT report, writes: “As the global population increases, it gets harder to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Simple answer: Control the population.”
Knowing the history, you know it’s not simple. Slowing population growth is but one of many things we must do to avert catastrophic climate change. That does not justify a return to the abusive population control schemes of the past. It does, however, provide another reason for the US and other developed countries to make good on the promises they made in Cairo.
- Read Laurie Mazur’s new article in RH Reality Check
- Is Haiti “Overpopulated?”
- Population and the environment: A progressive, feminist approach
- The Population-Climate Change Link: Opportunity and Danger