Rising populations are at core of overseas aid issue


OPINION:Is it sensible for Irish aid to be given to countries whose populations continue to rise in reckless fashion?

ONE OF the more controversial issues in the discussion about Government cutbacks is overseas development aid. Ireland promised to increase spending for the developing world, but is now faced with the need to cut back on its commitments.

The reduction has drawn a predictable response, from those who ask why such aid should be immune from cutbacks, especially if other sensitive areas are being cut, and from those who say that it is abandoning help to “the poorest of the poor” especially in Africa. There is merit in both cases, but what is interesting is how limited is the debate about the direction or methodology of overseas aid.

For example, one of the big questions now is about the effect of such aid given the rapid and reckless population increases in these African areas. How can we be surprised, for example, that Ethiopia, which is a major destination for Irish aid, is suffering from continuous famine when its population is increasing by millions every year?

Ethiopia’s population is now expected to go from its present 78 million to an incredible 170 million by 2050, or even sooner. This is an extraordinary rise, given the apparently miserable condition of the country. And it is the same with other African countries, notably the Congo, which is undergoing a similar massive increase in population. Few in the aid lobby seem to wish to address this.

Why is this? Perhaps to address this awkward fact, aid agencies would have to question their whole methodology and philosophy. Instead, what we usually get is the same unchanging mantra about “curing” world poverty, and the need for us to continue aiding Africa, and somehow help it to develop up to first world standards – when in fact we are possibly doing the very opposite. And all of this is not even to mention what such “growth” will do to the global environment.

In fairness, the overpopulation issue is a difficult one for the aid agencies to deal with, and Justin Kilcullen of Trócaire makes the following points: “One of the key factors in controlling population growth is women’s education. Economic and social development is required to eliminate poverty and inequality. The education of girls and women offers enormous possibilities for both. Trócaire works throughout the developing world to help people overcome poverty, to learn about their rights and to start holding their governments to account for the programmes and policies that affect their citizens. We support women’s access to and control of resources such as land, while our good governance work supports women’s participation and involvement in decision-making and leadership.”

“Experts are agreed,” continues Kilcullen, “that women’s education is crucial to overcoming poverty and to reducing high birth rates in developing countries. The International Union for the Scientific Study of Population’s Panel on Population Growth and Human Welfare in Africa found that education is the most important factor in determining the number of children a woman will have over her lifetime. Getting children into school and keeping them there can prevent early marriage and give them far greater opportunities in later life.”

So the key factor here is education, but it appears that with the improvement in education and prosperity in these areas, the population continues to rise – at a huge rate.

More heartening is the line about “holding governments to account”, but again one assumes that the likes of Trócaire can’t do this – it would smack of neo-colonial interference. Instead, it has to be a country’s own citizens who do so. But this is most unlikely to happen, and would fall on deaf ears. So Kilcullen’s response doesn’t hold out much hope. At least it is a more considered approach than the line we have been getting elsewhere – that by cutting aid we are directly endangering the lives of those in the developing world.

The most literal example of this is (no surprise here) Vincent Browne, who tried not long ago to equate the drop directly with actual lives lost, as if such a crude arithmetic could ever be applied. On his TV3 programme he asked Kilcullen exactly how many lives he thought were lost because of the cuts in Irish aid, but Kilcullen was naturally reluctant to be drawn into this type of discussion.

But the other question he could ask is, is it right that millions of children, in increasing numbers, are being so blithely brought into a world of such suffering? Is it right to tolerate such reckless population increases when the world’s resources and environment are in such peril? After all, countries such as China try to prevent disastrous over-population, admittedly by fairly repressive means such as limiting families to one child.

The fact is that despite cuts, Ireland ranks as the sixth largest donor in the world in per capita terms and has been praised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as a “champion” at making aid more effective. In 2008, Irish Aid supported “13 million Ethiopians at risk of hunger, and supplied fertilisers and seeds to more than 1.5 million families in Malawi to allow them to escape from hunger and poverty”.

This shows our continuing commitment, but it would be interesting to ask what is the real effect of this when the population of Ethiopia, for example, is so rampantly and recklessly growing. What is the real effect when millions more are being brought into a world of hunger and disease, with seemingly little thought about their future, except that the West will probably foot the bill?

This would be the real question to ask.

Eamon Delaney is a writer and former Irish diplomat

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