Global Thoughts: Half a Billion Tanzanians?

Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

by Gwynne Dyer


I was one of five children, so I am in an invidious position when I write about population growth. However, I and my brothers and sisters have had a total of only 10 children, so we’re down to replacement level in this generation. This is not happening in Tanzania.

“Women can now throw away their contraceptives,” said Tanzania’s President John Magufuli last Sunday. “Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more babies are just lazy.”

“They do not want to work hard to feed a large family, and that is why they opt for birth control and end up with one or two children only,” Magufuli continued. “I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere and have seen the harmful effects of birth control.”

This is not really a problem in Tanzania, where the average woman has more than five children. The population has grown at a steady 3% for decades, and since independence in 1961 it has increased sixfold, from 10 million to 60 million. There is no sign of the birth-rate dropping, and the country is on course for 100 million in less than 20 years.

Yet President Magufuli thinks women should throw away their contraceptives because the country needs more people. He is not alone in this conviction. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (which has about the same birth-rate as Tanzania) once told me that his country could easily feed 100 million people. He called the country’s population explosion “a great resource.”

Uganda’s population at independence in 1962 was just 7 million people. It’s now 45 million, and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years – and there is no reason to believe that it will stop there. Uganda’s birth-rate has not dropped in decades either.

The end-of century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop towards replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is around 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in future decades (as they have not dropped in past decades), then these two countries alone will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.

And still John Magufuli wants to get the birth rate up. He presumably believes that a bigger population makes a country stronger, but five or ten times its current population will actually just ruin Tanzania’s environment and leave a lot of people hungry.

Hardly anybody in Tanzania sees curbing population growth as a priority. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and those who point out that it really is a problem that could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neo-colonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is in Ghana.

Ghana’s population was 5 million at independence in 1957. Now it’s 30 million, but with great effort it has now got its ‘total fertility’ down to four children per woman, and the prediction is for ‘only’ 73 million people in 2100. Dr Leticia Adelaide Appiah thinks this is still too many.

Dr Appiah is the Executive Director of Ghana’s National Population Council, and a very brave woman. She has proposed that women should be restricted to having three children, and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number.

She has faced a storm of criticism for her proposal, but Africa needs more women like her. Urgently.

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