The voice of a woman media representative reached me through my mobile phone. She said she had heard from Parliament that Malawi’s population had increased to 17 million.
“What will be the effects of this?” she asked me.
I told her that the effects will not be in the future. At 17 million, Malawi is not over populated for the first time. It has been over populated even at less than 17 million, judging by the failure of living standards to improve comparatively.
Who has not heard of congested classrooms and hospitals? If the population were less, the food shortage would have been manageable. Land shortages are being felt all over the country and we read of fights over land ownership, urban centres are bulging with migrations from rural centres looking for jobs which do not exist.
Any student of economics or sociology eventually comes across the name of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), a Cambridge professor of political economy who originated the science of demography as it is practised today.
Malthus noted that a country’s population tends to grow faster than the means of sustaining it. In ordinary language, we would say population grows at a faster rate than food production. When the population grows much faster, it is checked by diseases, pestilences, wars and famines.
Economists and policymakers at first denounced Malthus for painting a gloomy future, especially when they saw that in Europe and North America, population growth was accompanied by higher living standards. They said Malthus had underestimated the effects of technological changes which made it possible to achieve higher yields from acres of land.
He laughs best who laughs last. If Malthus were to come back to life, he would see people and governments all over the world agonising as to what to do to ensure that means of sustenance grew faster than population growth and thereby, maintain higher living standards.
We people of Africa envy the people of Asia, Singapore, China and South Korea for their economic growth but seldom envy them for achieving very low population growth rates. While in Africa, population grew on average of three percent annually, in Asia it grew at 1.8 percent, in Europe at 0.2 percent while in North America it grew at 0.8 percent.
Students of demography discuss three concepts: birth rate, death rate and total fertility rate. Birth rate is the number of babies born in a year per population of 1 000. Death rate is the number of people who die divided by the total population, and total fertility rate is an estimate of the number of children a woman is likely to have during her lifetime.
In 1964 when Malawi gained independence, its population was just a little more than four million. It is now 17 million, mostly because the death rate has considerably declined, thanks to better health facilities which save lives from diseases which used to destroy communities in the past.
In developed countries, populations are drastically controlled due to the invention of more efficient methods of birth control such as contraceptive pills, improvement in abortion and sterilisation. Besides, the people’s culture favours small families.
In developing countries like Malawi, some religious teachings have contributed to undue population growths and sexually transmitted infections because they tell their followers that use of condoms encourages promiscuity. This is fallacious.
Malawi must tackle its population growth drastically. Besides persuasion, there should be some penalties against those who go beyond the recommended number of children per family. Free education should be accorded only to two children per family. For extra children, the family should bear the cost.