Sunday July 20 2014

The politics of population growth and its control

By Harold Acemah

Friday, July 11, 2014, was celebrated worldwide as World Population Day and the theme of this year’s occasion was: Invest in young people today to ensure a bright future for Uganda.

The national celebrations took place in Dokolo District of Lango region.

Dokolo is the place where my friend and fellow political scientist Professor Okello Oculi hails from. I believe he has relocated to Abuja, Nigeria for reasons which are not difficult to guess.

The history of this event can be traced to 1974 when the 3rd World Population Conference convened in Bucharest, Romania which was at that time a hardcore communist country led by a ruthless Stalinist dictator called President Nicolae Ceaucescu who opened the global conference on August 19, 1974.

I was privileged to be a member of the Ugandan delegation to this intergovernmental conference organized by the United Nations to discuss the relationship between population questions and development as well as the challenges of population growth and control.

It was in many respects a unique conference at which delegates from 135 member states of the United Nations were out-numbered by observers and participants representing CSOs, NGOs and religious organisations.

Unlike most major UN conferences at which the largest delegations were normally fielded by the USA and USSR, now Russian Federation, the largest, vocal and most active delegations at the Bucharest conference were from the Vatican and Saudi Arabia. The first world population conference took place in Rome in 1954 and was followed by the second conference held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1965; both were technical meetings.

The Ugandan delegation consisted of Moses Mukasa, a senior Economist from then Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, Harold Acemah from the Permanent Mission of Uganda to the UN, New York, John Mukalazi from the Ministry of Planning and one officer from Presidents Office who, I was cautioned, came from the intelligence bureau.

This was my first visit to a communist country and what an experience it was! One could see and feel the fear which stalked the country with wananchi looking suspicious of everybody, especially foreigners. There was only one decent hotel in the city, namely the Ramada Hotel which was fully booked in advance by the US delegation and UN staff; we had to find our level elsewhere.

President Ceausescu and his wife Elena ruled Romania like a personal fiefdom with an iron fist; hence the fear which paralyzed the country.

When the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed one by one in the late 1980s, the strongman who terrorised Romania for decades succumbed on December 25, 1989 to the adage that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.

The documents for the population conference were prepared by the UN Secretariat and one of the main documents proclaimed rather confidently that by the year 2000 world population would rise to an alarming 10 billion people and this set the stage and tone for an acrimonious debate between the developed countries which advocated for population control, especially in the developing countries and, for lack of an appropriate usage, what I would call “a holy alliance” comprising the Vatican, Saudi Arabia and some predominantly Catholic Latin American countries.

This alliance of like-minded delegations fought tooth and nail every attempt to include population control in the final plan of action which was adopted at the end of the two-week conference on August 30, 1974; their relentless efforts paid off, especially in convincing delegates from developing countries that the population problem was not one of numbers, but of poverty, ignorance and under-development.

Contrary to what the UN estimated in 1974, world population did not hit the 10 billion mark in 2000 as predicted; in 1987 world population reached 5 billion and today it is estimated to be 7 billion.

The UN report was definitely not on the mark, but that does not mean there is no problem or world population has stabilised. Whereas the rate of growth in most developed countries is less than 1per cent, many developing countries including Uganda have astronomical rates of growth of more than 3 per cent!

The conference adopted a comprehensive plan of action which included a decision to establish the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) to be headed by an Executive Director at the rank of Under Secretary General.

The challenge
The primary challenge which faces demographers and political leaders today is strike the right balance between the quality of life and quantity or optimum size of population. It is unwise for political leaders to openly encourage poor citizens to produce children endlessly when poverty is rampant in Africa and the world.

The second challenge is food production to feed the rapidly increasing population of most African countries. In Uganda, food production is lagging behind population growth which means that too many Ugandans are either underfed or literally going hungry; remember a hungry man is an angry and dangerous man!

The third challenge is massive youth unemployment which must be addressed urgently because it is a ticking time bomb capable of exploding sooner than our political elite think. One day they will wake up to find that the youth have run amok due to frustration and because the have nothing to lose, but their chains and misery!

I believe there is enough room on God’s earth to comfortably accommodate 10 to 20 billion people, but such a huge population can only live peacefully if food production can keep pace with population growth.

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.