Monday, November 7, 2011

Kristof on Poverty, Climate Change & Conflict: Birth Control is the Answer

Nicholas Kristof really knows how to pack the largest amount of conservatism into the one article. The presumptuousness of the title continues throughout the article, as well: 'The Birth Control Solution'. Kristof holds the rather naive view that underdevelopment exists because some people in some countries have too many children. The 'solution' to climate change, poverty and civil wars, and to underdevelopment in general, is birth control to limit population growth.

One result of overpopulation, according to Kristof, "is that youth bulges in rapidly growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism". All those who have spent long hours wondering why terrorism erupts in some countries should look at rapidly growing countries, with a high proportion of young people. These areas are 'prone' to conflict and terrorism, apparently.

Such populations also contribute to global poverty, we are told, and make it impossible to protect virgin forests or fend off climate change. Well that's quite a revelation to me. I always thought the biggest pressures on climate change come from rich countries. What does Kristof think virgin forests are being cut down for? To build mud huts? I am happy to let him know that the bulk of carbon emissions don't come from mud huts or from people wearing out the soles of their sandals in developing countries. There is no global shortage of food either, just a lot of people who can't afford prices that have been inflated by Western economic measures.

Kristof cites evidence that family planning works, but that is not in doubt. What's in doubt is that if you get family planning right, everything else will follow. His evidence is from India and Mexico in the 1950s and 60s. So now all Indians are rich and Mexico is peaceful? Family planning, birth control, even sexual and reproductive health, are just part of the health of a population. They need to be put into perspective.

Surprisingly, Kristof notices that the 'unmet need' for contraception is only one of many unmet needs, but he seems to think others are limited to those relating to family planning. Does he not know that there is an unmet need for access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation, education, social services and adequate infrastructure? There's nothing wrong with contraception, nor with providing more contraception, but it is just not at the top of everyone's list. It is buried inside some of those far more pressing needs.

The first thought of people planning a family (or just having a family, without any particular plans) is to have children. Then there needs to be some consideration of how to raise them. Some may wish to limit the number of children they have, but that might not come till later. What seems unlikely is that people will use contraception in order to reduce the possibility of their having an abortion. Aside from the fact that people don't think that way, abortion is illegal in many developing countries. It is just not an option. Reducing abortions is a secondary outcome of increased use of family planning methods, it is not a 'selling point'.

And those who worry about the world running out of resources tend to be those who are able to use far more of them than they need, not those who barely have access to them in the first place. Kristof seems to be thinking of his skin, and the skins of other rich Westerners. There is widespread poverty because most of the world's wealth and resources are in the hands of a few, civil wars are often fuelled by external influences (as any American journalist should know) and climate change is a result of the overconsumption of the minority world, not the sheer size of the majority world.


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