Demography and Zambia

Published in Bulletin No. 85 Third Quarter 2010
Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection
Lusaka, Zambia

Dear Editor,

I have been reading JCTR Bulletin for over ten years and find myself enjoying the articles more and more. The editorial and the first five articles in the First Quarter 2010 are just the most recent examples. The quotable statistics in the article by Dominic Liche, and the article by Trevor Simumba with the extract of the speech by Martin Luther King reminding us of the power of eloquence, I found especially memorable.

There is, however, one subject that does not get space in the Bulletin, which is of extreme importance not only for Zambia and Malawi, but also for Africa, and the world in general: I refer to the rapid redoubling of populations. In the last ten years I can remember only one article that dealt with this. This was by Fr Roland Lesseps in 2006. It was in this article, I believe, that Fr Lesseps inserted a quote from UNESCO: “An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems.”

This population increase is one of the most important non-religious, undoubtedly man made events in recorded human history. The figures are staggering. In the century 1950-2050, Zambia and Malawi are each expected to increase their populations ten times, and sub-Saharan Africa nine times. Indeed, Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan, the one large region of the world where family planning is – in most countries – not easily available, is expected to increase its population eight times, from 300 million in 1950, to 600 million 1976, to 1,200 million in 2002, to an estimated 2,400 million in 2050.

The United Nations latest (2008) low, medium, and high estimates for the 2050 population of this region are 2413 million, 2760 million, and 3132 million respectively. The more exact figure for 1950 is 308 million. The numbers do not include Turkey. (World Population Prospects. The 2008 Revision. United Nations Population Division)

Most of the world outside this large region has realised that family planning is necessary in order to become prosperous and in most countries of the Far East and, belatedly, in Latin America effective family planning is used by most couples. In China family planning is used by 90% of couples; in Latin America by almost 70% of couples; but in sub-Saharan Africa by only 21% of couples. (UN World Contraceptive Use 2009) Where effective family planning is controlling population, prosperity is arriving. Where there is little family planning, poverty remains.

If we measure wealth as GDP per head we find that in 1960 Zambia had $222 per head, Brazil $208, South Korea $155. China $92. (Internet: Economic Statistics GDP per capita by country 1960) These dry figures can be put more graphically. Fr Aloysius Schwartz a Maryknoll missionary, describes the horrendous slums in South Korea in the early 1960’s, where “on the rubbish dumps women and children with blackened and scarred hands scraped in the refuse for morsels of food.” (The Starved and the Silent. Fr Aloysius Schwartz. Published in 1966.)

Fr Schwartz was worried that “Korea’s rapid population growth (three per cent per year) will have all but cancelled out its economic advance”. Happily, the South Koreans saw the danger and governmental enthusiasm for family planning soon controlled the population and they became prosperous.

One reason why some countries with plenty of space did not follow South Korea’s example was that the “green revolution “ appeared to give promise of endless improvements in food production. This is what Norman Borlaug, the “father” of the green revolution had to say about that in his speech on accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize:

“The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

How we can get governments to comprehend the magnitude of these population changes so that they develop enthusiasm for family planning I do not know, but it can be done. Iran is the best modern example. With the availability of clinics in every village and teaching in schools, the birth rate in Iran has dropped from 45.5 per 1000 in 1980-85 to 18 per 1000 in 2005-2010. In the same period Zambia’s birth rate has hardly changed: 45.1 per 1000 in 1980-85 to 43.2 per 1000 in 2005-2010. (1)

Population is going to be controlled either by family planning, or by the age-old methods of disease, famine, and war. I hope that Zambia will choose family planning. In 1967, Pope PaulVI, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio (paragraph 37), both noted the problem and advised solutions, and pointed the way forward.

Gerry Danaher
Retired Medical Practitioner

(The letter was published as written, except for some minor changes such as “human-made” for “man made”.)

If you have any questions or comments about this site I'd be happy to hear them. Please email me via my contact form