Overpopulation and other myths about Africa

OF all the myths about Africa prevailing in the West, none is propagated with more vigor and regularity than the notion that overpopulation is a central cause of African poverty. The recent famine has given propagators of this myth fresh ammunition with which to press home their argument. All myths are dangerous, especially when they become the basis of policy. But the overpopulation myth is particularly harmful because it often preempts deeper probing into the complex causes of underdevelopment.

Moreover, the frequent repetition of this myth by outsiders actually contributes to resistance to family planning programs. After centuries of foreign domination, many Africans are deeply suspicious of any campaigns designed to alter the way they live and behave. Thus, even African governments committed to lower population growth rates are very careful about how they present these goals to the public.

Foreign pronouncements on the subject do not make their task any easier.

A brilliantly lucid example of this was provided recently in Kenya. Just as the Kenyan government was concluding careful negotiations with the United States Agency for International Development to launch a major marketing drive for contraceptives in the rural areas, children in the central highland areas suddenly stopped taking their free milk drinks at school. The reason became clear a few days later when a man appeared in court charged with spreading the rumor that the milk had been treated with contraceptive chemicals. The implication behind the rumor was that the authorities wished to reduce the population increase of the ethnic groups living in the region.

In any event, there is little agreement among Africans or those who know the continent well that overpopulation is the critical issue it is made out to be. Indeed, in many African regions the problem is underpopulation: The people are so thinly spread over large areas that it is often difficult to create a meaningful infrastructure to promote the interaction crucial to development.

Lloyd Timberlake, a respected writer familiar with the continent's diverse landscape, recently published an excellent study, ``Africa in Crisis,'' in which he states, ``The fact that African nations cannot feed themselves does not prove that the continent is overpopulated.'' He makes the point that while industrialized countries like Switzerland, Japan, and the Netherlands are not self-sufficient in food, this does not have to be the case for Africa. Chad alone could feed the whole Sahel.

Key figures seem to undermine the myth's credibility. Africa's average population density is only 16 per square kilometer, against China's 100 per square kilometer and India's 225. Furthermore, Africa has more arable land per capita than any other developing region.

Africans also point to the case of India, condemned by many experts in the 1960s to perpetual hunger. Today India is producing the bulk of its own food. In their quest for appropriate solutions to their own food predicaments, more and more Africans are making their way to India to study breakthroughs there.

Given India's -- and indeed China's -- example, one can see that population in its isolated context does not provide the clue to a country's ability to feed itself, and that population policies are meaningless unless coupled with specific measures to promote economic growth.

Rapid population growth is a concern of African leaders. In fact many nations are trying to encourage family planning. But they try always to pursue such plans in ways derived from African cultures themselves.

Overpopulation is but one myth that abounds about Africa. Another one that seems to have taken root in the wake of the famine is that higher food prices make peasants boost food production dramatically.

But the fact is that price increases alone will accomplish little if all-weather roads do not exist along which peasants can transport their food to market. Nor will higher prices mean more production if the growers can't get credit to buy fertilizers, if land is used for speculative rather than agricultural purposes, or if steps are not taken to preserve or rehabilitate the soil.

Even so, it is sometimes found, the main beneficiaries of higher food prices are not producers but traders, who buy cheap at harvest time and sell dear later.

Myths sooner or later are punctured by reality. In Africa's case, unfortunately, it is mostly later, because of the historic neglect of the continent in the world press. Regrettably, even when the famine of 1984-85 forced Africa upon the world consciousness and provoked concerned scrutiny of the causes of hunger, many myths have been left intact partly because the news media neglected to report on what Africans were saying and thinking about the hotly debated food and development policies.

Innumerable Western experts were quoted on what Africa needs to do to fight famine. But rarely, if ever, did the media seek the views of African planners, leaders, scholars, or public officials, not to mention our agronomists or peasant farmers.

So there is a danger here that instead of genuine education about Africa, the world press has helped form opinions and set the stage for new plans of action to which Africans themselves have contributed only their assent -- the assent, at best, of unequal partners.

This course will result in a new round of policies out of harmony with primary African needs and likely to fail. This lapse in media coverage reflects the longstanding tendency in development and investment circles to treat Africa as if it were unable to formulate effective policies on its own.

Unfortunately, the view that outside experts -- some of whom arrive in African capitals with briefcases bulging with solutions for problems they do not fully understand -- know best has carried considerable weight, even in Africa itself.

This has led to a readiness to accept guidance from those who do not take into consideration the needs and complexities of our diverse societies and fragile ecologies. The result is that even many Africans begin to repeat the myths conceived in distant lands.

There are no easy ways out of the predicament. It is very difficult to counter simplistic myths with complex explanations of the continent's interrelated problems. But a beginning can be made by the media, some elements of which are continuing to keep Africa's critical problems in the limelight. In this continuing coverage, they would do inestimable service to Africa and to their own nations if they were at least partly guided in their reporting by the views of the African people themselves.

Djibril Diallo, a Senegalese national, is chief spokesman for the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa.

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