Population policy has always been at the root of socio-economics and impacts on the role of the state and the markets, distribution of resources between the races and the gender and between the first and the third world. Therefore, when a book dissects the issues of population, gender and health in neo-liberal times, it, for sure, makes an interesting read.
Markets and Malthus, a collection of dozen essays, edited by Mohan Rao and Sarah Sexton, attempts to answer questions on whether it has been correct to tackle population explosion through reproduction rights for women and whether too much focus on empowerment of opposite gender has led to deterioration in the levels of poverty, health care and starvation.
The volume, ambitious and empirical in its coverage of themes and discourses, seeks to scrutinize the impact of neo-liberal policies of family planning on gender, poverty and health through an array of essays penned by domain experts from America, United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and India.
Enveloping the 16 years that have elapsed since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the book refers to developments in India, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Africa, Russia, United States of America, France, Italy, Sri Lanka, Britain and Bangladesh to point out their nuanced approach towards family planning.
It examines the ‘law of nature’ of English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus who claimed that while food production increases at an arithmetic rate (1,2,3,4,5…) the number of people doubles every 25 years because they grow at a geometric rate (1,2,4,8,16…). Malthus believed that if people did not check their population, starvation, epidemics and disease would do so.
It raises questions on the efficacy of the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo (Egypt) in 1994, where 184 governments reached a consensus on a twenty-year Programme of Action to balance the world’s population with resources, claiming that either family planning programmes has grown at the cost of health services, led to widening health inequalities or the agenda has not been implemented to any significant degree.
“Funds for family planning programmes grew exponentially in places where there were little or no health services available,” the volume argues. Despite the Cairo consensus, the book asserts, women in some countries are still coerced into being sterilized.
Even in Indonesia, which was held up as an exemplar of family planning provision at Cairo, poorer women do not have access to contraception. In India, the book adds, several states have introduced a two-child norm for those who wish to contest local elections, while others have introduced such norms for access to government schools. It alleges that in India, where population growth rates are falling, most policy-planners continue to believe that ‘Cairo was wrong’ and that some element of coercion is needed to bring down fertility rates.
It points out that despite Cairo consensus, “some 600,000 women die each year, 95 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, while 18 million are left disabled or chronically ill because of largely preventable complications during pregnancy or childbirth.”
The neo-liberal consensus has widened the gap between the rich and the poor in developed as well as developing countries. “In 1960, 20 per cent of the world’s people in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent; today they command 74 times more (Harvey 2005). The same richest 20 per cent of the population command 86 per cent of the world GDP while the poorest 20 per cent command merely 1 per cent.”
It discloses how India and China have become similar in anti-feminist respect with daughter avoidance and dramatically skewed sex ratios affecting both.