A taboo subject: The connection between population, poverty and violence

16 May 2005

In the 1950s and 1960s, in Europe and North America, it was generally acknowledged that there was a connection between population, poverty and violence.

However, for the last thirty years, ever since the peoples of Europe and North America solved their own population problem and become prosperous, there has been a taboo on mentioning population changes when discussing poverty or violence.

From my own experience in following Justice and Peace, CAFOD, CIIR, and Vocation for Justice I can see this taboo operating. But this taboo operates in non-Catholic organizations as well. When poverty and violence in the Middle East or Africa is in the news, articles and letters in British newspapers seldom if ever mention this major cause of poverty and violence. A major book on the countries of the Middle East published in the 1990s does not mention population – one of the two most important events in the Middle East in the last fifty years. The various reasons for the taboo, or for the lack of interest, will come in a future newsletter.

The taboo is almost absolute, but not quite. Here is a letter to The Times in March 2005 by a Professor whose boyhood was spent in Rwanda:

From Professor Emeritus John Guillebaud

Sir, I was born in what was then called Ruanda-Urundi. In 1941 there were around two million inhabitants. Fifty-three years later, when my boyhood friend Husi and his Belgian wife were slaughtered along with 800,000 others in the Rwanda genocide, there were nearly eight million people in that landlocked and resource-poor country. Population, poverty and violence are connected. While the GDP of Rwanda, like other African countries, had actually increased somewhat, the enormous increase in population meant that per-person share of land, their only real source of wealth, had declined dramatically.

Given also the long-term enmity between two racial groups, escalating violence was inevitable, as Belgian scientists predicted.

If the Commission for Africa truly wants to “make poverty history”, the words “sustainable development” are an oxymoron unless the so-often taboo issue of population is prioritised — wisely, compassionately and democratically, based always on women’s reproductive rights and choices.

Yours faithfully,
(Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, University College London).
Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust,
73 Charlotte Street, W1T 4PL.
March 11. (2005)

Comment: Rapid doubling and redoubling – which has happened – and re-redoubling – which is happening – of populations, (as seen in many African and Middle Eastern countries) makes poverty certain: a certainty completely ignored by those campaigning to make poverty history. Gerry.