Common stand on Uganda's population policy still a far cry

TOO MANY? A crowd of people attending a rally. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

While countries historically have taken advantage of a population spike- to grow economies and expand- it is also true that large populations can suffocate economic development by putting pressure on resources.

Uganda’s official population agency has supported the view that the lack of electricity, especially in the rural countryside, is powering the record-breaking population growth rate- that has politicians and western-backed technocrats divided.

“The poor are reproducing themselves. A poor woman has eight children while the rich are producing 3-4,” said Isaiah Mbuga, the national programme officer at the Population Secretariat.

The view that the absence of modernity – in the form of access to electricity, education and dispositions against certain religious and cultural perspectives - is the reason for Uganda’s roaring baby boom has create a different thinking between politicians like President Museveni who supports a large population and the Mbuga’s who do not.

It is also a policy black hole. On the one hand politicians say a large population is important to growth while technocrats argue that growth is determined not by the size but by quality of population. The problem, observers point out, is a classic chicken and egg situation.

Suffocate development
While countries historically have taken advantage of a population spike- to grow economies and expand- it is also true that large populations can suffocate economic development by putting pressure on resources. The difference either way is determined by the type of investment a country makes in its population to improve its quality and output.

Officially Uganda, through the Secretariat, proposes containment in the form of better sexual practices and family planning.

Mbuga argues, for example, that 78 per cent of Ugandan women have unplanned for babies allegedly because the lack of electricity in part narrows their choices of entertainment after dark to sex.
He points out that condom use - associated more with prevention of HIV/Aids than birth control - is low.

“There is a marked difference in the fertility rates between primary school drop-outs and girls who study up to university,” he said explaining the socio-economic distance in birth rates between the modern and less modern sections of the community.

And the momentum thus far is by the poor who are churning out more children than can be planned for by the government, Mbuga argues.

“Everyday 2,800 babies are born but we don’t see classrooms increasing,” he said. This view is shared by Mr Urban Tibamanya, the Minister for Urban Planning.
According to Mr Tibamanya, urbanisation or the movement of the rural poor to towns including the conscious efforts by them to better their standards speaks to the positive things about development.

“When people leave the village for university education, after three years they start homes. Secondly, there are people who come as unskilled labourers like brick layers, porters and so forth and they do this all their lives. They marry and produce children and because of the good health facilities, their children don’t die,” he said in an interview.

He adds that the aggregate effect of thousands relocating for better opportunities is the “squalid conditions” that people live in as the collective strain on housing and other services takes its toll.

This is the future that the United Nations Population Fund said in a report that is likely to eventually overwhelm the government.

In its report, it notes that Uganda leaped from a population of five million in 1948 to 31 million in 2009 posting the highest fertility rates in Africa. Today, about 78 per cent of the population is aged below 25.

What has changed less slowly or even stagnated, say observe experts, are the social services, schools, jobs and opportunities.

The UNPF has projected that if the fertility rate continues as it is, the number of primary school pupils will increase from 7.5 million in 2007 to 18.4 million in 2037. It would require a commensurate rise in teachers from 152,000 in 2007 to 459,000 in 2037. The agency argues, however, that if fertility is restrained and drops to 2.2 children per woman the modest increase in the primary school pupil population will only be 10.2 million in 2037 needing just 253,900 additional teachers.

Similar extrapolations
Similar extrapolations have been made with regard to health services and food, housing, transport, water, sanitation and energy painting a future that Uganda will be turned into one giant slum in the next several decades.

The UN and other agencies argue therefore that Uganda should go the way of China or India, where they say a controlled population can spur economic growth.
However, whether fertility works against modernisation is still being debated in political circles, former Vice President, who also has a PhD in health economics, was skeptical of the population doomsayers.

Speaking to African women parliamentarians at a reproductive health conference, she poured cold water on “disaster “research.

“Who is there to verify that? Yes, it is true there are 6,000 to 14,000 maternal deaths,” she pondered. Her political contemporaries including the President say a large population equates to a bigger market.

“I hope President Museveni will now start listening to our call to check population growth. Even the Asian tigers he keeps referring to at one time had to stop and think about their young population. What is the use of having a big useless population?” asked Bishop Zac Naziringaye, the chairperson of the Africa Peer Review Mechanism (Uganda Chapter).

Facts on Uganda's population
Population size
Today, the total projected population of Uganda is 30.66 million. (Males at 14.93 Million and Females at 15.73 Million)
The Total Fertility Rate is 6.7
Why the fertility is high
High desired family size of 5.6 for men and 4.8 for women
Low contraceptive use of 24 per cent
Of 6.2 million women of reproductive age, 785,000 are currently pregnant
Over 1 million children will be born in 2007
6,500 births will lead to maternal mortality
Urbanisation population growth in 2002 stood at 3.0 per cent
Internal migration rates in 2005/2006 were 20 per cent, international migrates constituted 0.2 per cent of the total population
Reasons for migration include: search for employment 28%, marriage 15%, insecurity 26%, join family 15%, education 9%, others 7% .

Welfare and poverty
In 2002/2003, 25% of households took one meal a day. This improved to 18% taking one meal a day in 2005/2006.