Poverty: Cause or Effect of Overpopulation?

From time to time two quite opposite views concerning the causes of overpopulation in ‘developing’; countries are rehearsed in politico-descriptive terms rather than by way of complex statistical analyses of past trends and future projections. Theory 1 argues that poverty is sustained or exacerbated by too high a population at a given period of time, and is therefore an effect of it, in particular when birth rates remain high and mortality rates are decreasing rapidly. Theory 2 contends that poverty itself is the cause of high birth rates, largely because of inequitable access to natural resources, notably in the form of land, and that the result is a population and environmental crisis. (See, for instance, Commons without Tragedy: Protecting the Environment from Overpopulation - a New Approach. R V Anderson (Ed.) 1991.)

For practical reasons, such assertions cannot usefully be made about the world as a whole or even to large continents, but can only apply to more limited geographical areas or countries. A recent visit to the Arab Republic of Egypt, a country which, by general agreement, is both overpopulated and poor, prompted an examination of these somewhat contradictory theories. It would seem that Egypt remains very poor because of rapid population increase, despite the land reforms of the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as newly available resources of energy and of modern technology; income per capita is actually continuing to fall. The population has doubled in the last 30 years to over 55 million. While the birthrate has fallen from 46 per 1,000 to about 34 per 1,000 during that period, the death rate has fallen even faster and is now not much above European levels. Half of all females are aged 15 - 49 and half the population is under the age of 25. Medical services are good overall. Birth control is promoted, albeit rather half-hearted in some parts of the country, but is available if requested. Average family sizes vary from 5 to 8 children, being highest in the Nubian villages in Upper (southern) Egypt. Highly educated professionals in the state sector such as doctors are extremely poorly paid by western standards and have fewer children.

Only the Nile Valley and the Delta can be cultivated, together just 3 per cent of the total area of over 1m sq km, of which 20,000 acres are lost every year because of encroachment by the growing population. There is simply not enough land available. It is felt that the benefits envisaged from the building of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970, have been eroded. The dam created Lake Nasser, which has itself swallowed up a large part of the Nile Valley in southern Egypt and the Sudan. The Nile no longer floods since the building of the dams, but canals now supply regulated irrigation and more than one crop a year can be grown The loss of silt from the floods means that it has to be transported from above the dam (where it tends to put the turbines out of action) and artificial fertilisers are beginning to be used extensively. Food production per head has declined with population growth; until about 20 years ago Egypt could feed itself, but 80 per cent of wheat and flour is now imported; water and energy supply is adequate everywhere; oil is a net export earner.

Egypt depends heavily on financial assistance from the U.S. following the peace settlement with Israel. Tourism is one of the mainstays of the economy. The Gulf War had a disastrous effect on Egypt’s foreign currency, since 10 per cent of Egyptian males who were working in Iraq and Kuwait now no longer send home their earnings. Land reform was enforced from the 1950s under President Nasser’s economic policy of ‘‘Arab socialism’’. Most peasants - about 55 percent of the population - farm about 5 acres and belong to co-operatives. There is an enormous contrast between a very small wealthy class, universally suspected of corruption, and the rest, almost all of whom are employed in the all-pervasive public sector: the large army, education, most industry, health and medicine. All earn the equivalent of between £20 and £30 per month, but the cost of basic foodstuffs is very low and is heavily subsidised. Education to the age of 12 is compulsory, but over 500,000 go on to higher education past 18, after which a period of service in the public sector at very low pay is compulsory and most remain in it, the tourism trade being the main exception. Housing is extremely expensive; adult children and young couples live in the family home, as do the elderly.

The reason given for the apparent preference for large families is that children are needed to earn money and to help their parents in old age, although meagre pensions are paid. Egypt is a deeply religious society. Over 90 per cent are Sunni Muslims. About 3 per cent are Coptic Christians, while other non-Muslim groups have declined through emigration. Women are as well educated as men, all have the vote, but the vast majority regard themselves as subservient to their husbands and do not themselves hanker after smaller, let alone two-child families.

It seems that here, as in many other ‘‘developing’’ countries, the slowness in the rate of change in cultural and religious attitudes among women, and perhaps more importantly among men, combines with much more rapid change in technology and medicine. In Egypt certainly, the crisis of overpopulation is not the effect of sustained or increasing poverty, as Theory 2 would have it, but its cause.

Elizabeth Still