Thursday, January 26, 2012

Huge Birth Control Programs Don't Work: Time to Give Education a Chance

I recently moved from a job as grant proposal writer for an NGO working in several different development areas to a similar job in a secondary boarding school for girls, which is being built in a country where many girls don't even finish primary school. So I was comforted to find an article entitled 'Women's Education Slows Population Growth'. That women's education can have such profound and positive consequences is not the issue, that has been recognized for a long time, at least by those working in education. But the priority is so often given to population growth, rather than to education or any other development area.

A shocking proportion of 'development' money and a disturbing number of development related insitutions concentrate almost exclusively on population control, in some form or other. They bang on about an unmet need for contraception as if many women will have depleted health or lives as a result of lacking birth control methods, when they are likely to be in far greater need of better nutrition, healthcare, security, governance, equality, infrastructure and, indeed, education. Shovelling contraceptives into rural communities may be a lot easier than providing people with what they need, but without the education and other development areas being addressed, the only gain will accure to the pharmaceutical companies who produce contraceptives.

Similar remarks apply to a lot of other 'health' programs, which target whatever health issue is currently fashionable and well funded; many of them are also necessary, but they would work a lot better if people had the level of education to capitalize on them. Otherwise, they can just go through the motions of attending numerous courses, often for the per diem they may be paid or the free lunch or other minor benefits on offer. I have met people who have been to various 'training courses' only to attend the same course several more times, sometimes provided by the same NGO as before. Training courses are a great way to spend money and it's easy enough to gather data that allows the donor to pronounce the intervention successful. Some health drives pick out some particular disease, perhaps a water borne disease, without addressing water and sanitation in the area. The current drive to 'eliminate' polio is a cases in point; those who attend immunization drives go home to drink contaminated water and contract something else.

Education itself, as we found in my own country, Ireland, is not enough when there are no jobs to go to. And here in Tanzania, women are not considered to be able to do many jobs that they would in fact be well able to do, if they had the education. Sadly, they are considered to be able to do many jobs that are not particularly appropriate for them when they are too young, too old, pregnant, childraising or breastfeeding, but that's another matter. I always feel a bit dishonest when I tell people about how important education is when there is little guarantee many of them will ever get to use it, especially girls and women.

As if there are not enough obstacles, also, school-going girls who become pregnant are excluded from school. In the rare instances where they are allowed to return to school, most do not. This is to 'set an example', we are told. And it does. It shows that girls who get pregnant will be treated very harshly, whereas the boys or men who make them pregnant, generally, will not. The fact that underage girls being made pregnant by older men is a serious crime doesn't get the girls off the hook. Men don't appear to be prosecuted, boys are generally not excluded from school and the strong prejudice against females appears to be practiced by the very institutions that might be in a position to change things.

According to the article, the average birth rate is less than half in regions where education is valued; as I'm working in one of those regions, I'm hoping that birth rates are lower because education is valued. However, even expensive schools with nice, well-funded buildings and facilities, don't always have especially high educational standards. As a fundraiser, sometimes I can see funds for all sorts of things, but not so many that clearly improve education. There is not so much available for good teachers or other provisions that would make a difference. And many fundraisers are tasked with raising money for the buildings, which is important, but often distracts from the ultimate purpose of these buildings.

So, as the article suggests, it's not the correlation between higher standards of education and lower birth rates that is important; it is the priority that is given to education. Proponents of the population control theory of development, so beloved throughout the last fifty years (and still loved by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gutmacher Institute, the Gates Foundation, Population Services International, Family health Internationa and many more), never appeared to realize what needed to come first, that with development of education, health, infrastructure and the rest, lower birth rates would follow. Similarly, poverty is pervasive in Tanzania, but lower birth rates does not have much direct effect on poverty; rather, lower poverty rates result in improved health, education and the like.

For education to be of benefit, many other things need to be in place as well. But one thing is for sure; reducing birth rates and hoping that other development areas will benefit accordingly has not worked. The funding these charlatans have received urgently needs to be directed towards people's true needs, which are still education, health, a decent standard of living, security, food security and the rest, just as these are the true needs of all people.


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