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Demographic trends

Differentiated action

by Sabine Balk

In brief

In Ethiopia, birth rates range from 1.5 to seven children per woman depending on the region: a Catholic wedding in Addis Abeba.

In Ethiopia, birth rates range from 1.5 to seven children per woman depending on the region: a Catholic wedding in Addis Abeba.

Although many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made progress, their birth rates are still high. A current study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) assesses the reasons and concludes that different circumstances call for different interventions to promote family planning.

SWP (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) authors Steffen Angenendt and Silvia Popp note that, contrary to the worldwide trend, birth rates have barely decreased since the 1960s in most of sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries. However, there are marked differences between countries. The birth rates in the Sahel zone are hardly lower today than they were half a century ago, while in many East African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, fertility fell in the late 1980s, but has stayed at a fairly high level since then.

The reasons are complex, as Angenendt and Popp explain. The experience of Asian and Latin American countries shows that birth rates can decline as a result of policies that promote socio-economic development in terms of health care, longer secondary schooling (especially for girls) and access to contraceptives for example. As some of these policies have been effectively implemented in East Africa, the researchers argue that other factors hold sway. According to them, experts have so far paid too little attention to people’s desire to have children. What parents consider the “ideal” number of offspring is relevant.

Only scant data is available on the subject. The study points out that people are generally expected to want fewer children if they become more prosperous. But as African examples show, that is not always the case. The authors argue that the sustained desire to have many children partly results from governments having done nothing to curb population growth in many countries or even fostering it in some places.

Even in more developed countries, however, it makes sense to reduce birth figures further. High birth rates lead to individual and societal risks and may block progress, as the SWP study warns. Women who give birth to lots of children, for example, face increased health risks. Moreover, governments struggle to bring about enough educational and employment opportunities for large numbers of young people. Lack of prospects and poverty, however, tend to fuel internal conflicts.

For the purposes of development cooperation, the authors identify three types of countries:

  • Countries with a pronounced desire to have children and a low level of socio-economic development,
  • countries with a higher level of development and stagnating birth rates and
  • countries with widely differing birth rates among different population groups.

The SWP researchers note that countries with a low level of development tend to have fragile states, so their governments have little room for manoeuvre. In these places, skilled health workers are needed outside the health-care establishments so people in remote areas will get access to counselling and care.

In countries with higher levels of development, the authors see a crucial role for the media and educational institutions in persuading people of the advantages of smaller families. The study points out that a number of governments, including those of Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Rwanda, have implemented successful campaigns. For such action to have a positive impact, the authors consider the following aspects crucial: there should be open debate on the ideal size for families, and small families should receive political recognition. The study also concludes that families need to be better informed about methods of contraception, and sex education should be introduced in schools.

In countries with widely differing birth rates such as Ethiopia, the SWP researchers see the need for locally differentiated action. It typically makes a difference, they argue, whether people live in rural or urban areas. Divergence of incomes matters too. In any case, effective action will require precise analysis of people’s actual needs.

Sabine Balk

Angenendt, S., and Popp, S., 2014
: Bevölkerungswachstum, Fertilität und Kinderwunsch ("Population growth, fertility and desire for children", only in German). SWP study.

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Interessante Perspektive #

Der Kinderwunsch könnte auch damit zusammenhängen, dass es keine andere Altersvorsorge gibt...

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