Monday, June 5, 2017

Woolly thinking on migration, aid and our common future


In 2016 the US journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a pair of articles, published in the New York Times, called “Out of Africa”. He describes a visit to a village in the far northwest of Senegal, worth the trek, he says, “if you’re looking for the headwaters of the immigration flood now flowing from Africa to Europe via Libya.” In this village he finds almost no young or middle-aged men; instead they have left for Europe, in search of opportunity. According to Friedman “the village’s climate-hammered farmlands can no longer sustain them, and with so many kids — 42 percent of Senegal’s population is under 14 years old — there are too many mouths to feed from the declining yields.” This scene is repeated right across the Sahel, including Niger, which has a total fertility rate of over 7.
Supporters of Sustainable Population Australia are unlikely to need much convincing that the human carrying capacity of much of northern Africa has been exceeded. In 2002 I co-authored a paper for a conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population which argued that human carrying capacity can be conceptualised as an emergent property of five kinds of capital: human, social, natural, physical and financial. Applying this analysis to sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that its natural capital (e.g. the capacity of its soil, water, climate and human ingenuity to grow food) is not keeping pace with population growth. Nor is its infrastructure (physical capital). At the same time, word of mouth, mobile phones, and the internet provide hope to many of its people that migration to Europe might provide the means not only for a better life to those who can escape, but a means to send some money home (remittances) enabling the import of food and other means to keep life tolerable, for those for stay behind. Staying behind makes sense for the frail, old and young, who not only avoid the arduous and dangerous journey to Europe, but will not need to be housed and fed in a foreign and strange land.
The vectors that drive migration are most commonly analysed as “push” and “pull”. These are surely not hard to comprehend by non-Indigenous Australians, all of whom are descendants of people who arrived more or less yesterday, compared to the time our earliest ancestors left Africa, perhaps 100,000 years ago. But, in addition to these factors, there are two more, which I termed “glue” and “fend” (deterrence) in a report I contributed to in 2005, commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Medical Association. For “fend” one only has to think of the hard line approach of Peter Dutton, President Trump and in other countries such as Hungary.
But the “glue” factor seems less well understood, including in Australia. But it is surely not hard to understand. I am very happy to be an Australian living here, where my mother tongue is understood, I am familiar with the culture, and I have the means for a reasonable life, including a sense of safety. Having lived overseas for 5 years, I know that what Australia can offer me, is, in general, at least as good as anywhere on Earth. Of those 5 years, about a year has been in Asia, including in many rural areas. I know that not every Asian seeks to migrate; they are tied to their homeland by memory, affection, culture and economy.
However, looking forward, in the context of still rising population growth, sea level rise, and other manifestations of adverse environmental change it is easy to conceive how push and pull will loosen glue, in many parts of the Asia Pacific, as is already evident in much of Africa. For many Rohingya (a persecuted Muslim minority largely in Myanmar) this has already happened.
I have met Philip Ruddock (a former Australian minister for migration) at three events organised by recent migrants to Australia. The last time I saw him he told me foreign aid from Australian was a luxury we cannot afford. In the context of intractable budget deficits (significantly due to the immorality of multinational corporations, Australia’s richest people and their tax lawyers) the position of the Liberal National coalition is that aid is a form of bad debt, an indulgent consumption. In response, I argued that aid was a glue and stability enhancing investment that would enhance global and Australian quality of life. But he gave no hint that he understood.
Sarah Hanson-Young, until recently the Greens spokesperson for migration, has repeatedly criticised Australia’s cruel, duplicitous, expensive, and unaccountable policy of deterrence (fend) to asylum-seeking but she too, to my knowledge, has never been reported the need to enhance the glue dimension to migration.[1]
In the late 1970s I decided to study medicine, primarily to try to improve health in the South, then called the Third World. 1989 I co-founded the non-government organisations BODHI and BODHI Australia, now two of the oldest Buddhist-influenced aid organisations based outside Asia. BODHI’s primary goal can be condensed to an attempt to enhance glue and to reduce push, pull and fend.
The arguments made here have been more or less clear to me since a long conversation in 1990 with Dr Maurice King, chief populariser of the concept of “demographic entrapment”. I won the 2001  Borrie Prize (awarded in 2002) by the Australian Population Association (APA) for a long essay that traced the rise and fall of Malthusian thinking within demography. This was an adaptation of the second chapter of my doctoral thesis (Inequality and Sustainability), which was supervised by Professor JC (Jack) Caldwell, a co-recipient of the 2004 UN Population Prize.
Despite winning the Borrie Prize, my resultant article was then rejected by a series of demographic journals, include the Journal of Population Research (the APA journal), the Population and Development Review and at least five more. Today, despite having published at least 50 articles, chapters and reports of relevance to global population dynamics, I have not yet been published in a primarily demographic journal. I share Maurice King’s opinion that mainstream demography has been corrupted by neoliberal forces who deny limits to growth, not only physical but social.
It is clear that Australian political elites have given up on global “health and wealth for all”, despite ostensibly supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be a mirage if business as usual continue. It is not only shameful but stupid that Australia has thumbed its nose at the Pearson Commission target for overseas aid. Our approach of miserly aid, rampant fend (the funding of which probably now exceeds that for aid) is sewing the seed for future misery, both here and abroad.
About the author
In 2002 Colin Butler was commissioned by the late Frank Fenner, of the Australian Academy of Science, to write a report on Australian carrying capacity. In 2013 the Australian Academy of Science published a chapter in which he argued that the Australian population must be substantially increased, even though this would reduce the Australian quality of life, given the global demographic pressure. However, he argued, this must be accompanied by much greater engagement in the struggle for global development.


[1] I have tried to contact her about this issue, with no response to date. Some other senior members of the Greens are, however, more sympathetic