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Africa’s problem is too much poverty, not too many people

Madagascar’s problems would not be solved by handing out condoms

By on Monday, 30 April 2012

Madagascar is the sort of place that we Brits know little about. Indeed try anyone on the subject of France’s former colonies in Africa, and you often draw a blank. Places like Burkina Faso attract little interest. Thus, it was good to be able to watch the ever engaging Simon Reeve on his way round the Indian Ocean, stopping off at this huge island.

Simon Reeve, for those of you who do not know him, is simply the best television presenter there is, and though young, he has an impressive portfolio of programmes behind him. He is certainly someone to watch, in every sense.

And what did Simon find in Madagascar? Well, sadly, it was the all too common tale of ecological devastation. To be frank, Madagascar seemed somewhat unattractive to me – treeless, deforested, and flat. Rather like parts of Kenya, I suppose, the less well known parts. And Simon and one of the conservationists he met was right, I think, to identify the destruction of forests as catastrophic.

There are many reasons why deforestation takes place, but one group of conservationists in the programme identified a burgeoning population as being a major problem, and were teaching the villagers about what the programme called family planning. Simon rightly observed that rich westerners telling poor villagers to have fewer children was problematic. Quite so; but I did wonder just how overpopulated Madagascar was.

A quick look at Wikipedia, that invaluable help for lazy writers, confirmed the following:

• Madagascar has an area of 226,597 square miles and a population of just under 22 million, according to the latest estimate. That makes for a density of 91.1 people per square mile.

• The United Kingdom, just for the sake of comparison, has an area of 94,060 square miles and an estimated population of around 62 million, which means a density of 661.9 people per square mile.

I was never any good at maths, but this seems to indicate that the United Kingdom is far more crowded than Madagascar; and indeed the south-east of England considered on its own would be even more densely populated still. Come to think of it, some of the world’s most prosperous countries are also its most crowded – Holland, for example.

Madagascar’s real problem is poverty, and poverty has many causes. Growing population is often a result of poverty, rather than a cause of it. Simon Reeve did spot the fact that the country’s infrastructure is virtually non-existent and its roads among the worst in the world- some looked even more bone-shaking than Kenya’s. I know that television is not a subtle medium, but it might have been better if the programme made clear that the population question in Madagascar has to be seen in the context of its other challenges – and that handing out condoms is not necessarily what those poor villagers need.

The rest of the programme took us to Mauritius, which is far more prosperous than Madagascar, but seemed, to me, at least, to be just as treeless. And then it was onto the Seychelles which are “verdant”, though here we met a fine Yorkshireman who had reforested a small island.

It was good to see Simon tackle some sensitive subjects, such as the whole question of Chinese investment in places like Mauritius. And he also took up the cause of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, who were moved to Mauritius by the British government to make room for the American base on their island. This question, which barely causes a ripple in the consciousness of modern Britain, deserves to be more widely known. I will try and make it the subject of a future article. But kudos to Simon Reeve for bringing up the plight of the Chagossians, who are among the least fortunate of the dispossessed populations of this earth.

  • LocutusOP

    I assume that you don’t count natural family planning as scientific.

    But given we can arrive at a population limit, what would be your solution to preventing us getting over it? How would you get rid of those over the limit? How far would you be willing to go to force people to stay below that limit? 

    What business is it of yours whether Kenyans die of starvation anyway?

    I’m trying to understand why the entry into the world of new Africans and Asians causes such a scare in population alarmists…We’re not exactly talking about culling sheep here.

  • TreenonPoet

     What has culling sheep got to do with it?

    The most humane way of reducing population is persuading people to have smaller families. There are many difficulties in doing so, but many benefits to be gained too. Methods that come to mind are reducing poverty and improving healthcare, improving education and changing social attitudes, offering incentives (or threatening penalties if necessary), offering sterilisation, and making contraceptives available.

    This has to be a global effort. No island is an island when it comes to sharing an atmosphere, biosphere, water, currency, climate, etc.

    60% of the world’s population live in Asia. Asia is well short of self-sufficiency, so that is an obvious concern. 14% of people live in Africa. Although Africa (as a whole) may be self sufficient, the very high total fertility rate makes it a concern.

  • theroadmaster

    The story of Adam and Eve is an allegorical story which has a moral underpinning.  It was mean’t to convey certain themes using figurative language e.g the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil, from which Adam grabbed the apple, contrary to the Creator’s wishes.  It was never mean’t as a scientific thesis , but as an expression of the spiritual truths surrounding the creation of mankind.
    The integration of schools is not a panacea for the social or sectarian ills which afflict society.  This has not prevented racial tensions from spilling over in large parts of England or the US.  I am in favour of integrated schools where there is demand for it, but parents should always have the option of being allowed to send their children to Faith schools when there is a large need for such a provision.  This should be the true nature of a liberal democracy in regards to education.
    As for your point regarding the petition, the school was acting in light of Catholic teachings with respect the restriction of marriage to one man and one woman.  There should be nothing divisive about that, as this is how marriage has globally understood for thousands of years.

  • TreenonPoet

     To try to avoid going too far off-topic, let me just say that some Christians, including some Catholics (as here) take the story of Adam and Eve much more literally, and schools have clearly failed to disabuse them of this idea. Your version of the story still involves the notion of an intelligent creator. I remember, at infants school, having to regularly sing “All things bright and beautiful…the Lord God mad them all”, and at no time were we all told that this was fiction – quite the opposite. Thus, schools give licence to dip in and out of science, in the manner Oconnord suggested.

    To briefly respond to your second paragraph: Facts should trump democracy, and if parents believe something, that does not make it right.

    Regarding your third paragraph, I had better not take the bait regarding the semantics of marriage. Denying the applicable benefits of that sort of arrangement to homosexuals is divisive, just as denying benefits to women when they are as entitled to them as men is divisive. If Catholic teaching says otherwise, then it is wrong. (I think that greater empowerment for women could have benefits regarding population levels.)

  • Benedict Carter

    Not sure how I did romanticise colonialism there, Locutus.

    As to your comment that colonialism was ” … much worse than communism, and much more de-humanising”, I have to plain disagree. 

    Have just finished a history of Africa since independence. All the countries which failed (most of them) after independence tried communistic or marxist models, from Ghana to Ethiopia and spread over thirty years in time.

    The result: the death of millions, the impoverishment of millions. 

  • jiejie

  • Oli

    Bill you go off the same facts as I do, yet you draw such an entirely different conclusion. From exponential growth statistics, to great work done by wonderful individuals (from various belief backgrounds), to passing the buck (which I’ll further is not restricted to Catholics, but applies to most of us that live in developed countries and seek to indemnify ourselves from feelings of guilt). So all in all, I stand firmly with you until you say that this is in the hands of God. 
    I have great problems believing that a God would create us in the image of his own self, with the capacity to exercise free will for thousands of years, stand back while we overpopulate the planet due to our cleverness (in boosting life expectancy and reducing child mortality rates primarily) yetdisregard as to where this is taking us (for this awareness of rising populations and earths inability to cope with projections hasn’t just been sprung on us); BUT…..that when things get rough due to our constant headlong rush towards ‘progress’ that HE will sort it out. 
    If he gave us free will, consciousness and a sense of morality, where do we learn that he indemnified us from CONSEQUENCES OF OUR ACTIONS as a species? 
    I believe religion can be a force for good if used rationally by individuals to form a basis for behaving well, which I’d define for my purposes as taking actions that lead to the best outcomes for all concerned, but when it is is used to put consequences to one side for now as ‘business as usual’ takes place in the face of evidence suggesting better courses of action for humankind; then religion fails us all, including the non-religious and those of contrasting religions which still all share the same planet. I would get more results banging my own head against a wall than suggest religion could ever be wrong but what are the possibilities that even the pope and the Vatican haven’t got all the correct interpretations quite in place yet? For when religious advice goes against common sense and even suggests that we oughtn’t solve this ourselves (for we could in the space of a single generation if we sought to) but proceed with the same actions that got us into this mess, and then ask god to sort it out, I feel sure that religion is being lost in translation. Doesn’t your god want you to feel accountable for your actions? Or does he help those who help themselves? If religion goes against commonsense, then why did god give you it, or did he just not give it to some?

  • Oli

    over fertility in relation to longer life expectancy of humans, are very serious issues regarding the health of the planet, The monopolization of material resources by the few don’t help us one bit either. Why does the existence of one problem cancel out the validity of the other?