Published On  Oct 09,  2011






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Dithering Over Population Stunts Economic Growth




Ethiopian culture dictates showing respect to all pregnant women. Granting them priority for in all public places is an unwritten rule. No one knows, the saying goes, who the baby will end up being.

The culture honors pregnant women via the fetus. It identifies them as the offspring of generations and symbols of the nation. There are inevitably subcultures that treat pregnant women inferiorly, but they are in the minority. In the majority of subcultures, however, expectant mothers are provided with the utmost respect.

Even in cities, wherein several cultures prevail concurrently, pregnant women are given conventional right-of-way. Public transportation, recreational centers and market places are typical places for preferential treatment. It appears that economic growth and modernization have not as yet altered this upright cultural element.                

The Boserupian policy of the Revolutionary Democrats gives this cultural trait its best hope for survival. Population growth brings new people with knowledge and skills to thwart any foreseeable challenge, according to Esther Boserup, the founding scholar of pro-population policies. Population growth should not be seen as a burden, but in fact as a complement, to production intensification, technological advancement and skills development.

She even goes so far as to assert that demographic pressure promotes innovation and productivity growth. Unlike Boserup, however, the Revolutionary Democrats half-heartedly believe that overpopulation might lead to land fragmentation and productivity decline, if not matched by economic growth. With a population size of 73.6 million, they contend, this is not yet an Ethiopian problem.

To their credit, the double-digit economic growth of the past five years, which averaged 11pc, has enhanced absorption capacity. It has accelerated the economy, created more jobs and improved agricultural production. It has bolstered capital formation, which grew by 22pc between 2005 and 2010.

However, the economic growth was challenged by a bulging population that continues to grow by three per cent annually. Overall, the nationís crude death rate and birth rate stood at 12 and 38, respectively, in 2009. The gulf between the two was bridged by a fertility rate of 5.2 births and an urbanization of 17pc, according to UNICEF. Whereas urban population continued to grow at a rate of 3.8pc, neonatal and infant mortality remained at 36 and 67 per 1,000 live births, respectively.

For critics, denial of the population challenge by the Revolutionary Democrats holds behavioral change back. Waiting for demographic transition, gross upward mobility in income and wealth as a result of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, cannot be a panacea. Settling for marginal soft limits such as providing family-planning information has not reversed the predictable tide.

All the same, land fragmentation has increased significantly, as much as 80pc, according to some estimates. The average land holding size stands at 0.5ha. With an increase in life expectancy, standing at 56 years in 2009, the challenge is to create an economic opportunity that can absorb mounting demographic pressure.

Accounting for per capita income and inflation has made the challenge apparent. Average annual inflation oscillated around six per cent between 1990 and 2010, while Gross National Income (GNI) per capita stood at 330 dollars in 2010. Certainly, the situation is inching toward the low-case scenario of productivity lag amid rapid population growth. 

Governmental efforts of improving access to information have brought change, albeit marginally. A rise in life expectancy from 47 years in 1991 to 56 in 2009 could be partly attributed to improved health information. So would be the decline in the urban population growth rate from 4.7pc in 1990 to 3.8pc in 2009. Yet, this would not account for the low level of contraceptive prevalence that remains at 15pc.

No ground reality can underpin the reluctance of the Revolutionary Democrats on population issues. Neither can this reality call for a rather passive population department to settle for a marginal role under the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED). Equivalently, it does not need the extremely hard limits on the issue that critics advocate for.

Creating a good balance between population and economic growth requires a detailed analysis of the status quo in both aspects. Trends guide the human side of the equation, whilst resource dynamics dictate the economics. As lopsided as the equation remains, however, proactive policy making is in high demand.

It has been 20 years since a national population policy was first instituted. Yet, its implementation has been undertaken at a snailís pace. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are filling the gap by educating the public on the benefits of family-planning and contraceptives. Even so, the government remains adamant about creating a conducive operational environment for the NGOs.

Shortening the doubling time of population would have at least been in the interest of the Revolutionary Democrats. It would have provided enough developmental dividends to uphold the demographic strain. It also would have allowed for alternative policy trials. But, it could not be realized with a top-down, centralized arrangement.

As the current trend goes, rhetoric weighs in heavier than action. Passivity is streamlined into the public sector all the way down to the local government level. The issue of population is left to NGOs, without any monitoring and evaluation. With flaccid local government muscle action and the rural orientation of NGOs, the fertility rate is rising in cities and urban centers.  The annual contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) of growth of 1.2pc in cities and urban centers between 2005 and 2011, as compared to 20pc in rural areas, substantiates this.

Increasing population burdens public service in urban centers. Slow progress in service delivery indicators including primary school attendance, sanitation, immunization, skilled birth attendance and telecom penetration showcases the potential impact of further growth in population. A rural-urban migration rate of 4.5pc could even aggravate the burden.

The problem might not worry municipalities in the short-term, but it could reach an irreversible state if not attended to as soon as possible. Even in the face of deteriorating services, most municipalities do not address the problem in their plans. The Revolutionary Democrats cannot leave it to implementation excuses when plans are non-existent. None of the government policies are geared up for an Ethiopian population of 120 million by 2020, as projected by United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

Addressing the population issue needs an updated population policy that embraces the current reality. It needs to give sufficient attention to male involvement in family-planning. It should also provide strategies for comprehensive service delivery that blend clinical and community-based family planning services. So should it give adequate attention to community ownership of service delivery.

Creating a smooth operational environment for NGOs to fill the implementation gap is also essential. Support needs to be tailored for all tiers of government. It should be facilitated by easy registration, community mobilization, program partnership, and other administrative procedures. Rigorous monitoring and evaluation of activities, however, should complement the support.

Restructuring the population department under MoFED into an independent, influential and well-resourced institution is also vital. It should be empowered to include the population issue in the fiscal policy of the country, not to mention sector and regional plans. Research and development efforts on population should also be organized under the institution. It is only then that policy practicality can be achieved.

However, the institutional structure should be decentralized along the lines of the public sector in order to create strong policy presence and enforcement capability. Centralization can only result in marginalization.

Going beyond marginal soft-limits should, however, be the prime objective. The Revolutionary Democrats should put an end to their dubious reluctance. They should come out of their shell of denial and face the current challenge. Even if they do not opt for Malthusian cynicism, they should think of reimagining their Developmental State policy to live up to the prevailing demographic challenge. Certainly, it is only then that their pragmatism will be proven.                 

If this happens, the cultural trait of respecting pregnant women will continue to thrive, even in the face of policy debates.





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