Saturday, March 4, 2017

South Sudan and demographic entrapment: a catastrophe that could have been eased if not fully avoided

Australia's Radio National recently broadcast an interview between the two journalists, Geraldine Doogue and Siobhán O'Grady about the tragedy in South Sudan. This involves civil war, ethnic rivalry, famine and refugee flight to Uganda (740,000 in seven months - more than have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in a year).

The causes of this catastrophe are neither fully social nor fully ecological, but "eco-social". Nor is this catastrophe unpredictable. I mentioned South Sudan in my recent essay in the BMJ, along with Syria and Yemen, as an example of "regional overload". In 1994, in my first article in the Lancet, I wrote: "Those in the developed world may watch with horror  ..  if followed by closure of the demographic trap through war, epidemics, famine, or all three." 

By "demographic trap" I meant a cluster of factors, including rapid population growth, in conjunction with poverty and limited social generosity, and hence a limited capacity to absorb additional people (especially of a different identity, if noticeably poorer, or perceived to be a likely burden), due not only to intolerance, hatred and fear, but a perceived (or genuine?) apprehension of "being full". These additional people are not immigrants, but born in the same land; countries that feel "full" do not admit many migrants. This apprehension is rarely admitted, even unofficially. Note that a minority of people in some rich countries feel they are "full" (including in Australia), but they do not live in demographically entrapped societies; they are not poor enough (even though Australia is becoming noticeably more unequal, with growing "Hoovervilles"). Demographic entrapment is more complex than this, but I have limited space here to expand.

To return to South Sudan

Siobhán O'Grady's harrowing article in Foreign Policy starts by describing the trauma experienced by Michael Mathok, a 48 year old Nuer cattle herder, who, with his two young sons, aged 7 and 9, witness the murder of one of his wives, Nyagany, aged 28. This unprovoked atrocity was by government troops, loyal to the Dinka tribe. Mathok reported: "They told the old woman, ‘We are going to kill all Nuer in this community. We do not want any Nuer in South Sudan” (the Nuer are ethnic group Mathok shares with South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar).

O'Grady mentions that Mathok has 14 children. She does not state how many of these 14 were alive (i.e. before being attacked in the civil war) but the population growth rate of South Sudan is high, with a total fertility rate of about five. The total fertility rate is the number of live children each female in a country would bear, on average, in her life, if she were to live until her mid or late 40s, and if the national fertility rate of the present time were to persist unchanged until then. A total fertility rate above 2.1 implies human population growth, ignoring in or out migration.

A central aspect of demographic entrapment theory refers to the speed of the demographic transition. The demographic transition is the period between two phases of low population growth. In the early, first state, there may be a high fertility rate, but (on average) few children survive to adulthood. (There need not be a high fertility rate; some traditional populations had customs such as delayed marriage, prolonged breast feeding, taboos on marrying widows, and high rates of abstinence, all of which slowed the number of children being conceived.) 

In the final state, i.e. after the demographic transition, most children survive, but the fertility rate is low, or below replacement, such as in predominantly Catholic Ireland or Italy today. In the intervening period population can grow rapidly, as an increasing number of infants and children survive, due to improved health services, and sufficient food and other resources, perhaps with changes in reproductive behaviour, such as a reduction in child spacing, perhaps in turn motivated by the expectation of greater prosperity. If this period of demographic transition is prolonged, and if the population growth rate is very high, then development indicators per person can falter, or even go backwards, generating a lagged risk of war, famine, mass migration or collapse. This might sound theoretical or even alarmist, and good data to test this are hard to find, but there are many recent examples: Yemen, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, NE Nigeria and, now, South Sudan. Other parts of the Sahel are also at risk, as the OASIS Initiative from the University of California Berkeley shows.
O'Grady's article gives little hint of the ecological dimension of this catastrophe in South Sudan, and nor does her interview with Geraldine Doogue. The tragedy is instead presented as a struggle for political economic power, though the underlying scarcity of available resources is in the background.

OxFam and high population growth

O'Grady's visit to South Sudan was sponsored by OxFam, and an OxFam moderator contends, in a blog published in 2014, concerning the (then) looming famine in South Sudan, that "high population growth is caused by poverty, not the other way around. The true cause of poverty is inequality — economic, political, social, as well as in terms of and civil rights, access to education and health care."

The problem with this explanation, which is common in both NGOs and Leftist commentators such as George Monbiot is its pursuit for a single root cause, in this case, grasping at the straw, just as Pope Francis and his predecessors have, that high population growth is not a component of a cause that is not that simple. Talking about high population growth as a contributing causal factor for poverty, war and famine has been suppressed for over 30 years (e.g. it did not feature at either the 1994 Cairo or 1984 Mexico City conferences on population). The problem is better understood as part of system, rather than a single linear chain of attribution. Yes, poverty contributes to high population growth, but at the same time high population growth contributes to poverty.

The OxFam moderator continues: "A factor in high fertility rates is the subservient role of women in a society. Women are often denied education and options and are forced into marriages and child birth from an early age. ... in regions where literacy in women has increased, fertility rates have dropped. High fertility rates are a reflection on the powerlessness of women, high infant/child mortality rates and lack of welfare."

I agree with this, and I think it suggests that the moderator understands that slower population growth would be beneficial. Otherwise, why make the observations in the final sentence? (That is, the moderator seems to support, as I do, later and voluntary marriage; equal rights for women - which will slow population growth .. but why link this with slower fertility unless you also think that is beneficial?)

The moderator also states: "Addressing this fundamental issue (of female subservience) is therefore more effective than simply introducing family planning and contraception."

Here I wonder: could not OxFam promote both? How easily can women escape subservience if they are almost continually pregnant? And, are there not traditional practices and customs which favour child spacing?

Improving social cohesiveness and tolerance

Slowing population growth, using human-rights based means such as greater equality for women, better education and increased discussion of family planning will enhance economic growth. But in some places, such as many Pacific islands, or China, discussion of "human rights" is seen as a variant of Western colonialism, an attempt to impose foreign values that stress the individual over the collective. Might this also be true in South Sudan? Might not attempts to promote greater rights for women in a patriarchal society be fiercely resisted?

It is not just the reduced fertility rate and a more favourable dependency ratio (ie a small percentage of  the population being children or elderly) which contributes to this potential for economic takeoff, but greater education too. Improved tolerance of others is much more difficult to foster, but easier (at least in culturally homogenous populations) if population growth is slow or negative - though not always; for example Japan and Russia remain intolerant of outsiders, despite having negative population growth.

The complicity of Western academics and NGOs 

Let me be as frank and clear as I can be. In 1989 I co-founded two NGOs, which have worked, in Asia, attempting to change human behaviour in ways that will enhance human well-being. We have had some success, but it is very difficult. We have not worked to deliberately reduce patriarchy, nor to promote family planning; though we have worked with partners who value female education and we have deliberately avoided working with partners who are patriarchal.

I can well imagine that criticising patriarchy in South Sudan, promoting family planning, or even promoting education for girls would be difficult, and possibly dangerous. My criticism is not aimed at people living in South Sudan, at NGOs working in South Sudan (including OxFam) or even policy makers in South Sudan (or other developing countries).

My criticism is instead aimed at the disciplines of demography and economics, whose practitioners sit safely in developed countries, and who, in the main, have downplayed or ignored the concept of "human carrying capacity" and "limits to growth". (I, with Club of Rome Fellow, Dr Kerryn Higgs, author of Collision Course, Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, have an 8,000 word chapter under review called "Health, population, limits and the decline of nature" which discusses this in much more detail. I may post an extract.) 


South Sudan, like Yemen, Syria, NE Nigeria and many other places, illustrates the exceedance of human carrying capacity. High population growth is not the only factor, and it is hard to fix, but the head in the sand attitude towards these issues by most academics, most religious leaders, most politicians and most of the world's media does not help. 

It is good for the media to describe these tragedies, to provide some disquiet and awareness to our comfortable, possibly complacent, lives, but it would be even better if the media and academics could explore the deeper causes of these tragedies. That might reduce the chance of additional or even worse catastrophes in future.