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No, The World Wouldn’t Be Better Off With Fewer African Children


The poorest people tend to have the highest birth rates, which threatens to reverse historic progress in reducing world poverty, says the world’s largest philanthropy in a recent report.

“[D]ecades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,” write Bill and Melinda Gates in their foundation’s latest “Goalkeepers” report. “This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life. If current trends continue, the number of poor people in the world will stop falling—and could even start to rise.”

In a podcast with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Bill Gates pointed out that in the next century the world’s share of babies born on the continent of Africa will rise from one-quarter to one-half, if current trends continue. This is troublesome, he says, because Africa is the poorest, most disease-ridden and poorly governed continent in the world currently.

Gates’s report prefaced more pointed anti-fertility remarks about Africa this week from France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

“Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children,” he said. “Please present me with the young girl who decided to leave school at 10 in order to be married at 12. This is just because a lot of girls were not properly educated, sometimes because these countries decided the rights of these girls were not exactly the same rights as the young man.”

This is a regular talking point for him. In response, women clapped back at Macron under the Twitter hashtag #PostcardsForMacron. A sampling:

Anti-Fertility Means Anti-Woman

There is definitely a third world problem with “marrying” girls younger than age 15, but for a very small minority of the world’s women. Such women are not driving the larger family sizes in Africa, either, where despite the narrative the fertility rate has dropped like a rock, just not as fast as those of the rest of the world. The “Goalkeepers” report notes that the education inequity is disappearing, too: “Since 2000, the number of African children enrolled in primary school has increased from 60 to 150 million, and the number of girls in school is now virtually equal to the number of boys.”

Further, mothering a large family is not necessarily in conflict with equal rights for the sexes unless you assume that raising children is inherently undignified and inconsequential compared to, say, working for an employer or sitting in a classroom. Many women feel that in guiding family life they find far higher freedom and self-fulfillment than if bound to an employer.

Mothers also absolutely use their education in raising children to replenish their societies. The more educated a mother can be, the better, regardless of whether she uses that education to generate immediate income or to water her culture pro bono.

Since women are the child-nurturers by virtue of our biology, to be anti-fertility is to be anti-woman, because it denies the value and beauty of something women as women bring to the world. As Sojourner Truth used to point out in another context (“And ain’t I a woman?”), women enjoy greater life flexibility and options than men because we are capable both of nurturing human life and of trading our talents for employment, while men are biologically loaded towards the latter.

Men’s larger, stronger, faster, more aggressive bodies are better for war and physical labor, but in a world of nuclear deterrence they have fewer outlets for demonstrating this unique capacity, while in our world of increasingly flexible, non-physical jobs women have more. (That would not be the case in much of Africa, though, which still needs lots of physical infrastructure and therefore predominantly men to build it.) These are just some of the problems with repulsive anti-fertility assumptions from people like Macron, and the more refined version coming from people like Gates. Let’s take a look at a few more.

Children Are Not a Threat, Selfishness Is

It’s interesting that when Bill Gates looks at Africa and sees just about the only continent set to increase population rather than contract it, what he thinks is “Gee, we need to stop all those Africans from reproducing,” rather than “Why have all the other continents stopped generating children?”

One way to look at these trends is to see poor, less educated people taking on the burden of raising the world’s future. Another way to look at it is to see rich, more educated people refusing to care about the world’s future, and spending the bulk of their resources making themselves comfortable now. It seems that for all their money and education, many of the world’s wealthier people sure don’t have a good grounding in basic ethics and social responsibility.

What kind of education can really call itself that if all it does is help people get more money without assuming more responsibility for addressing the world’s problems? Whatever happened to “To whom much has been given, much will be required”? As the world’s top philanthropist, Gates is particularly suited to lead people like him into better behavior, but instead he uses his platform to disparage poor people’s families.

This whole equation reveals the insane myopia of elevating one single statistic about the world — the percentage of people in extreme poverty — above all other concerns and with no context. If one started with the premise that human beings are good in and of themselves, then one would have to seek solutions for poverty other than eliminating poor people.

One could celebrate that many African people don’t use poverty to excuse despising women and children. This is something they get right, and that the rest of us could and should learn from them. This should be obvious to the self-annihilating Western countries so bereft of children that our aging, unsustainable welfare states are on the brink of causing a global economic meltdown.

Gates and Macron are imposing their selfish, money-mad Western mindset on Africa, then insisting it’s nothing like colonialism because, after all, they hold conference calls with local leaders to get them to buy into Western mindsets and priorities. Here, we’ll give you dollars, if you tell your women to stop having children. It’s for the best.

People Are Wealth

Perhaps these elites’ weird, anti-child attitudes about global fertility are a projection of their shame at having gained the whole world while losing their souls. They have become people who consider children a threat, rather than a resource and a joy. What’s the honor in that?

Since elites have often sacrificed close relationships to get their material achievements, many cannot understand the flip side. That may be just a different personality type or culture, but it also might be a choice to live in denial about the tradeoffs of prioritizing a high income and imposing resume above cultivating meaningful, lifelong relationships defined by commitment.

They have become people who consider children a threat, rather than a resource and a joy.

The dominant western social structure of atomized individuals, paying strangers to perform intimate family functions, and 9-to-5 employment outside the home is not the only or the best one. Let Africans generate their own, organically. It certainly could have lots to teach us.

We already know from both U.S. and global sociological research that people who are poor in material goods often intelligently focus their energies and talents on developing rich relationships. The simplest and most natural way to do that is to start and nurture one’s own family.

Poorer people trade relationship favors, work, and other nonmonetary support in lieu of money and will actually turn down money — in the form of jobs or higher education — to be able to maintain the relationships. This is an utterly rational thing to do. These relationships are their safety net, and their source of capital for things like the microbusinesses that are the first step towards economic development.

This is a common pattern of behavior also for immigrants from poorer countries into the West, as Luma Simms has written about eloquently. Check out some of her illustrations about how immigrant communities invest in and build social capital to replace and form the basis for building economic capital. So long as you are able to feed and house them, of course, nurturing a large family is a smart long-term investment in social capital for every member of that family. It creates more people to rely on for things like care during an illness or after the birth of a child, and to chip in financially when one member suffers a setback.

The more people pulling for you, the better your life odds are. Also, in situations where it is not possible to get much deep satisfaction from one’s work, which is often the case in developing countries, a family is a deep source of joy and satisfaction. “Poor unmarried women don’t just have kids because they don’t use IUD’s. They have kids because they want them,” writes Anna Sutherland in discussing sociological research about why poor mothers have children even in less privileged circumstances. We should never bereave people especially people who are already limited, of potential sources of joy.

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

There are other reasons it’s a terrible idea to march into African countries preaching that birth control, separating families, and extreme individualism will help solve their poverty. For one thing, it’s not “the world” that is responsible for African countries or citizens. Obviously Macron’s France has its own population problems that, as an elected leader of his country, perhaps he should focus his energies on addressing rather than running around flapping his mouth at people he doesn’t govern.

Telling Africans that because they are poor they are hapless and doomed is insulting and false.

The principle of self-determination teaches us that no matter his station in life, each person — and each country — is ultimately responsible for itself. Telling Africans that because they are poor they are hapless and doomed is insulting and false. Check out the documentary “Poverty, Inc.” to get an overview of that disastrous concept in action, and its antidote.

Foreign intervention, period, has a terrible track record, particularly intervention in Africans’ sex lives. For example, handing out condoms correlated with increased AIDS transmission rates and social breakdown by reducing the costs to people having nonmarital sex. We have no evidence chemical birth control will be any healthier physically or socially. Certainly its widespread use has had mixed results in the West, at best, including the birth dearth but also increasing the disintegration of families and other pathologies. Broken families increase poverty. This kind of cure could be worse than the disease.

In his conversation with Klein, Gates noted “resentment of the elites, or social policies…satisfaction with what the government is doing, the polarization, and the willingness to at least consider more extreme ways of running things, are a bit stronger now” across the world. But he seems clueless about the ways in which people like him exacerbate this anger. Commoners like me rightfully resent elites thinking that just because they have more money they have the right to judge and punish us for loving children more than money.