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Controlling fertility rates alone won’t lead to middle-income status

Uganda’s population pessimism, spearheaded by the United Population Fund (UNFPA) and the population secretariat in Uganda, has forcefully argued that unless Uganda reduces its fertility rates from the current 5.9 children per woman, it won’t easily realise its aspiration of a middle-income status.

The premise of this argument is that high fertility rates condemn women to increased childbearing, exposing them to greater risks of pregnancy and childbirth; it restricts women’s skills development, and, by extension, their participation in the labour force; it diminishes resources available to devote to each child for proper upbringing, resulting into poor child health and limited access to education.

The advocates of this view often add that these problems tend to create intergenerational vicious cycles of poverty whereby poorly-educated women are more likely to beget poorly-educated children.

From this perspective, their argument presupposes that Uganda’s low income per capita and, by extension, the underinvesting nature of the Ugandan government stems from high fertility rates.

While the above argument can’t be completely refuted, attributing Uganda’s stagnation of per capita income or poverty rates squarely on high fertility rates is simplistic, misleading and offers very little (if any) help in exploring more effective measures for inducing and sustaining poverty reduction.

The framers of the current population-poverty debate in Uganda either deliberately or inadvertently ignored to read the literature on the real causes of poverty in societies across time and space.

Karl Marx’s writings during the industrial revolution in Europe couldn’t have been any more enlightening. In the 18th century, while studying the plight of the working class, Karl Marx attributed appalling working conditions, high poverty and greater income inequality to the capitalistic system that privileged the owners of capital over the working class.

The extractive nature of the capitalistic system subjected the worker to pervasive low wages, leading to deplorable conditions.

Contemporary works of economists such as Thomas Piketty, in his text on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, have further supported this view by empirically and theoretically demonstrating how the current global inequality and, by extension, poverty is driven by the fact that the rate of return on capital has successively exceeded the rate of economic growth over the past three decades. This implies that the distribution of global wealth betwe-en and within countries is skewed in favour of owners of capital to the  detriment of the working class.

However, we ought to realise that Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty writings are contending with the challenge of allocation and distribution of wealth in an industrial society. In the context of many developing countries like Uganda, an interesting question to ask here would be: what is fuelling poverty and income inequality?

Truth be told, our economy is not industrialising; evidence suggests that the contribution of manufacturing to GDP remains at seven per cent. This thus implies that the rate of job creation has also remained low over the past three decades, fuelling high unemployment and underemployment.

Many poor people thrive on having a job to lift themselves out of poverty, thus are likely to remain poor. Even those out of poverty remain highly vulnerable to falling back, an empirical observation that was made by the 2014 poverty status report by the ministry of finance.

Although the explanation of Uganda’s deindustrialisation is beyond the scope of this piece, we should observe that reducing fertility rates will not in itself sustainably reduce poverty as the population pessimists would like us to believe.

And this is not to understate the importance of family planning but, rather, it is to point that the discussion of Uganda’s transformation into a middle-income country needs to be more sophisticated by analysing the institutions (both political and economic) that structure Uganda’s current economy.

Take this example: Uganda’s financial institutions remain complicated, making access to finance not only costly but highly-inaccessible to the poor; the land tenure rights remain unstable because of a complicated land regime, discouraging over 73 per cent of the poor people who survive on subsistence agriculture from making long-term investment on the lands they inhabit.

Such realities, ignored by the population pessimists, have reduced the discussion of Uganda’s economic transformation to fertility reduction and population control. The debate needs to shift.


The author is a research fellow at the Centre for Development Alternatives and an alumnus of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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