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Saturday, October 16, 2010

We can't expect the poor to limit their family sizes when they need children to help support their family

While overpopulation is a problem that plagues many developing nations, it would be wrong to assume that it is their main problem, or that the countering of overpopulation should receive priority above all else. There are more serious problems facing the third world. Poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth are two that must be dealt with first.

There are many people who argue that the biggest problem in South Asia is overpopulation. This assertion has been repeated so often over the years that it has almost become common wisdom. Its adherents include a lot of well-educated individuals and one often hears the argument from government officials as an explanation for the inability to reduce poverty.
There are a number of problems with this simple proposition. First of all, population is not a very useful measure by itself simply because it fails to account for the size of the land in which the population resides. Some countries like Russia have a very large area while others like Singapore have a very small one. Therefore the appropriate indicator to use in order to make valid comparisons is population density (i.e., population per unit of land area).

Using this indicator one would find, for example, that Belgium has a very high population density, Pakistan is in the middle, and Somalia ranks very low. Of these countries, Belgium is not the one with the most difficulties. Nor does Somalia have the fewest. Just looking at population or population density tells us very little about a society’s problems.
Within individual countries we can find similar situations. Take Pakistan, for example. Balochistan has the lowest population density amongst the provinces. But Balochistan is by no means better off than the other provinces because of its low population and population density.
This raises an interesting issue for those who subscribe to the overpopulation hypothesis. Would Balochistan, with all its natural resources and its small population, be much better off if it were a sovereign country by itself? I am sure the believers of the hypothesis would quickly find many arguments to refute the implication of their own assertion. The question would force them to abandon the simple answer and start thinking of the many other factors that actually influence economic and social development.

Consider another interesting situation. When Bangladesh became independent, what remained of Pakistan lost more than half its population and the small part of its land area that was widely believed to have been a drain on the resources of West Pakistan. Did the significant reduction in population and the removal of the resource drain trigger an immediate economic boom in Pakistan? And if not, why not? The simple relationship of population and development fails to provide an answer to the question.
The second point to consider is that even population density is an incomplete measure because all the land in a country is not equally valuable when it comes to supporting its population. Deserts and mountains are of little value in this regard. It is the habitable and cultivable land that matters.
Japan and China both have relatively small endowments of such land while the latter has the largest population in the world. Yet Japan, despite its relative lack of natural resources, is amongst the richest countries in the world. And China has been recording very high economic growth rates for many years lifting millions of its people out of poverty. The simple proposition fails to explain much of what has been going on in these two countries either.
As a matter of fact, one could quite plausibly argue that poverty is not due to overpopulation. Rather, overpopulation could well be a result of poverty. Empirical evidence shows clearly that as households become economically better off the average family size tends to decrease.
In fact, a larger population can even be considered an advantage. Many European countries are actively encouraging their citizens to increase the size of their families. So is Singapore — a very small and densely populated island. Global firms are keen to invest in highly populated countries like India and China because of their large consumer markets.
The issue is obviously not as simple as it seems. The point of these stark and somewhat extreme examples is to stress the need to abandon the simple explanation for the problem of poverty.
Only then would we be able to debate the real causes and reasons for the slow pace of development.
The belief in overpopulation as the cause of poverty encourages a sense of helplessness because there is no obvious solution. Even if we accept that South Asia is overpopulated what are we going to do with all the people who are already here? We need to think of people as a source of strength and not as a problem. The sensible strategy would be to invest in people to make then as productive as possible in order to promote economic development and reduce poverty. 

Population densities in 1999 (in persons per square kilometer) for the countries mentioned in the article were as follows: Singapore 5,500, Bangladesh 950, Belgium 340, Japan 340, India 340, Pakistan 180, China 135, Somalia 12, Russia 9. Data for all countries is available at:

The real cause of this is the capitalistic consumerist system that we allow to exist.
if you havent already, I strongly suggest to watch the movie "capitalism: a love story". It is specifically designed to have some at the top that exploit those on the bottom.  We can turn this around if we want and decide to! We can stand together for a new system, a system of life and cooperation. Where peoples basic needs are taken care off unconditionally, and where one can work for more money, where children are in school not programmed to just be consumers and producers, but to develop self trust and trust in each other, cooperation, and self-expression. This will nto result in an amount of people that would want to live on wellfare, but people that actually have a drive for life and want to express themselves. Because its not so strange that these days people get more and more depressed and often dont want to do much. In such a restricted superficial boxed up world, there is little room for anything else then the profit machine.

Join to work on the solution, dont wait, the future is here.


  1. Thanks for sharing this perspective Ann! Why is some linked text in the top of the post not visible (the same color as the background)?

  2. I agree, even in more affluent societies it is still difficult for the relatively poor to self-actualize well and make the kinds of decisions that benefit themselves when it comes to family planning birth control. Thoughtful decision making to the betterment of a group is a luxury of the the relatively affluent in any given society. You may enjoy my last blog at or at