November 19, 2012
Improved Water Supplies In Africa Increase Poverty

In societies still stuck in the Malthusian trap lower death rates result in population growth that lowers living standards and forces migrations in cities. Lower fertility rates are desperately needed to end the cycle where all increased economic output goes to feed a growing population.

Improving water supplies in rural African villages may have negative knock-on effects and contribute to increased poverty, new research published today [14 November] has found.

Rural development initiatives across the developing world are designed to improve community wellbeing and livelihoods but a study of Ethiopian villages by researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Addis Ababa in Africa has shown that this can lead to unforeseen consequences caused by an increase in the birth rate in the absence of family planning.

The study, published in PLOS ONE and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, also established that resulting population pressures encourage young adults to move to urban areas. Such urbanisation in less developed countries concentrates poverty in cities which already have stretched public services. Projections for Ethiopia, currently one of the least urbanised countries in the world, indicate that the proportion of people living in urban centres will double over the next 40 years, from 17 per cent in 2010 to 38 per cent in 2050.

Academics argue that the results of this study highlight the need for policy-makers to take into account this link between development projects and changes in demography, especially as over 90 per cent of urbanisation is taking place in the developing world.

The additional babies surviving to adulthood do not have enough farm land to farm. So out of desperation (really, gotta eat) they head to the cities looking for work. There is an upside to the urban migration: The economics of cities provide incentives for smaller families. If more rural dwellers moved to the cities fertility rates might go down.

Here is the paper.

Rural development initiatives across the developing world are designed to improve community well-being and livelihoods. However they may also have unforeseen consequences, in some cases placing further demands on stretched public services. In this paper we use data from a longitudinal study of five Ethiopian villages to investigate the impact of a recent rural development initiative, installing village-level water taps, on rural to urban migration of young adults. Our previous research has identified that tap stands dramatically reduced child mortality, but were also associated with increased fertility. We demonstrate that the installation of taps is associated with increased rural-urban migration of young adults (15–30 years) over a 15 year period (15.5% migrate out, n = 1912 from 1280 rural households). Young adults with access to this rural development intervention had three times the relative risk of migrating to urban centres compared to those without the development.

UC Davis economic historian Gregory Clark, in his book A Farewell To Alms, makes the case that in Africa, still stuck in the Malthusian Trap, technological advances just increase the number of poor. Until fertility rates in Africa plummet that will continue to be the case.

Prosperity, however, has not come to all societies. Material consumption in some countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, is now well below the preindustrial norm. Countries such as Malawi or Tanzania would be better off in material terms had they never had contact with the industrialized world and instead continued in their preindustrial state. Modern medicine, airplanes, gasoline, computers—the whole technological cornucopia of the past two hundred years—have succeeded there in producing among the lowest material living standards ever experienced. These African societies have remained trapped in the Malthusian era, where technological advances just produce more people, and living standards are driven down to subsistence. But modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age.

In medieval England living standards were twice as high as in Africa today. That's because death from disease limited population density in medieval England.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 November 19 09:16 PM 

bbartlog said at November 24, 2012 6:00 PM:

I wonder whether Africa got screwed in part by sort of bumping along close to the Malthusian limit, while Europe got some relief because it got hit by such massive pandemics (primarily the Black Death) that it was able to spend multiple generations of time at some population level well below the carrying capacity.

Engineer-Poet said at November 24, 2012 9:25 PM:

Forms of social organization which limited fertility and added eugenic biases would have helped too.

roystgnr said at November 25, 2012 9:21 AM:

The only cure for the Malthusian limit seems to be strong property rights. If I can choose between "two kids as wealthy as I am" versus "five kids with 40% of the per-capita wealth", I'm going to choose the former. But if my only choices are "five kids with 40% of the per-capita wealth" versus "two kids with 40% of the per-capita wealth, because the other 60% got redistributed to all my neighbors who chose five kids", then I'm going to want the five kids too.

James Bowery said at November 25, 2012 9:33 AM:

The "demographic transition" fantasy is like the fantasy that we can over-use antibiotics without developing resistant strains of highly virulent bacteria.

Economic development is like an antibiotic against human reproduction. The fact that you're successfully committing genocide against a huge portion of humanity blinds you to the fact that you're selecting for strains of humanity that will find ways of more efficiently turning wealth into an exponential growth of their babies. That optimum appears to involve lowering the age of female puberty and increasing the rate of de facto transfer payments to support their offspring. The idea that "property rights" are the answer must take into account the political dynamics of the recent election as a warning: Liberal democracy has a _strong_ tendency to serve the most reproductive.

A female that pumps out 1 child a year from age 8 until age 38 has a 30 to 1 gain over those 38 years. That means an effective doubling time of under 4 years. Many of us may live to see this new breed of "human" become a dominant demography.

SOBL1 said at November 27, 2012 6:58 AM:

Please read David Lamb's "The Africans" written in the early 80s and get back to me if you guys truly think Africa will be able to pull itself out of its trap. We're talking about a population that believes HIV-AIDS is a curse, and that one can cure it by having sex with a virgin, so grown men are having sex with 2 year olds. "Dead Aid" is a good read written by an African PhD who worked at Goldman Sachs who said the aid the West sends only exacerbates the problems of Africa. It's not going to turn around for Africa.

Kinneson said at November 30, 2012 3:48 PM:

The population of Africa is artifically high due to the injection of Western medicine and food assistance. The population has increased nearly 20 fold since 1500. It is not a sustainable system and the more outside aid that is provided, the worse it gets. At present growth rates, half the people on Earth will be starving Africans in 30 years. Good intentions are creating a snowballing nightmare.

Ronald Brak said at November 30, 2012 10:34 PM:

How do you work that out, Kinneson? World population is expected to be a bit over 9 billion by 2050 and Africa's population is expected to be about 2 billion by that point. How will Africa manage to have about four billion people, all of whom would have to be starving, by 2032?

Ronald Brak said at November 30, 2012 10:40 PM:

Sorry, by 2042.

Ronald Brak said at December 1, 2012 7:37 PM:

Randall, I found this interesting, a suggestion that world population may peak at around 8.5 billion:

Randall Parker said at December 3, 2012 9:48 PM:


Jorgen Randers makes a similar argument in his book 2052. I'm skeptical that fertility rates, once dropped, will stay down. The selective pressure is going to be in favor of higher fertility. The groups who haven't experienced as much drop in fertility rates will grown and take up a larger fraction of the total. In the long run I absolutely expect world fertility rates to rise as a result of natural selection unless all offspring are genetically engineered to have less desire for children.

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