Population in the less-developed world

Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • describe the pattern of demographic change in developing countries
  • explain and evaluate sociological explanations of the ‘population explosion’ in the developing world

The pattern of demographic change in the developing world
In 1994, the population of the world numbered 5.7 billion. By the year 2050, it is estimated that it will reach 10 billion. Three-quarters of humanity, including 94% of the newly born, live in the Third World.

The population of the Third World is increasing at approximately 2% annually. This implies a doubling every 35 years. For example, in 1800 Egypt had a population of just 2 million. By 1978 this had increased to 38 million.

High population-growth was first identified as a problem by Malthus in 1978. He argued that populations increase in size at a much faster rate than the capacity of those same populations to feed themselves. Malthus claimed that the increase in world population was posing a serious threat to the world’s natural resources.

Modernisation theory and population
The modernisation theorist Ehrlich sees rapid population growth in the LDCs as an obstacle to development. He claims that much of the poverty found in the LDCs is caused by a ‘population explosion’ which has put too much strain on the limited resources (i.e. food and energy) of these societies and resulted in famine and malnutrition and consequent high rates of infant mortality. High population allegedly puts a great strain on the infrastructure of the LDCs and services such as education and health are stretched to the limit. Economic growth is also difficult to achieve because any economic surplus in the form of capital must be spent on feeding the population and developing an infrastructure to cope with it. If population was not increasing, such economic surplus could be invested in industrial development. There is also concern that high population puts a strain on the environment in terms of pollution and the over-use of land, whilst the need for more land may lead to deforestation.

Population and religion
The culture of LDCs, and specifically religions such as Islam and Hinduism, are blamed for high birth-rates. The patriarchal nature of these religions means that the status of women is very low in many LDC societies. Women have few opportunities for paid work and are consequently likely to be dependent upon men. As a result they are likely to lack reproductive rights, i.e. they cannot choose not to have children or when to have children. Men may deny them access to contraception and abortion.

Modernisation solutions
According to modernisation theory, there are three solutions to high population.

  • First, the governments of LDCs should be encouraged to adopt familyplanning policies limiting the number of children in families.
  • Second, official aid from the West should be used to finance birth-control programmes.
  • Third, aid should also be used to promote health education and media programmes which encourage the use of contraception. In particular, education should be aimed at women because, given the choice, women will want to have fewer children. Moreover, educated women are generally better able and willing to use contraceptives.

Dependency theory and population
Dependency theory is critical of the idea that the LDCs’ populations are out of control and the idea that high population is responsible for the problems faced by LDCs today.

  • First, Harrison points out that birth rates in the LDCs have not dramatically changed in the last 200 years. High population growth is mainly due to a dramatic decline in the death rate, especially the infant-mortality rate, which, ironically, is due to Western intervention in the fields of public hygiene, the processing of food and medical advances in the eradication of diseases such as smallpox and malaria.
  • Second, there is little evidence that the world’s food resources are under strain. Food production has actually increased this century due to advances in technology. Moreover, European farmers are actually paid by the EC not to produce food because of surpluses in the West.
  • A third argument suggests that the real cause of famine and its related problems is inequalities in access to land (and therefore food) rather than high population. Famine may occur where food production is high but land use is controlled by local élites and multinationals for cash-crop production.

Such inequality causes high population because children are seen as economic assets by parents. They bring in extra income and can be a source of welfare support when their parents can no longer work. Therefore the decision to have large families may be rational.

Dependency theory argues that the real problem is not population but the unequal global distribution of resources and power between the developed nations and the LDCs. It is pointed out that the world has the space, the wealth, the resources and productive capacity to provide a decent standard of living for all, but that the West monopolises the consumption of food and energy resources. For example, the USA has 6% of the world’s population but consumes 40% of its resources. In their lifetime, an average person in the West will consume 30 times the resources that an average person in the Third World consumes. This means that the 16 million babies born a year in the West put more strain on the world’s resources than the 119 million babies born in the Third World.

Finally, dependency theory claims that high population in the LDCs suits Western interests because it keeps the LDCs in a constant state of dependency and distracts from the real causes of Third-World problems such as inequalities in the world trading system, multinational exploitation and the international debt crisis.