Today is World Population Day, a day which seeks to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues, established by the then-Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme in 1989.

This year the theme is:  Family Planning: Empowering People, Developing Nations.

In February this year I had an interesting conversation with my Facebook friends after I posted views by a Zimbabwean senator who was encouraging my countrymen to dump contraceptives saying the decision to have fewer children is a colonial mentality and thus unAfrican.

Part of my post contain excepts taken from the sentiments by Zimbabwean Senators during a debate discouraging the use of contraception. During the debate opposition Movement for Democratic Change-T Senator Morgen Komichi was quoted saying:

“If you go to Britain, Germany or any other country, there are a lot of families that give birth to many children because they know that you cannot separate the population and economic development”.

According to the Chronicle, Manicaland Senator Monica Mutsvangwa said she lived in China for five years when her husband Chris Mutsvangwa was the ambassador to China and they found it difficult to attract big Chinese corporations to invest in Zimbabwe because of its population (approximately 14 million).

Read: World Bank blog – Can rapid population growth be good for economic development?

Now obviously as you can imagine, there was a lot of heated debate around discouraging birth control. One of the major questions emanating from the debate is who is willing to have many children so that the country could become competitive in attracting investors based on economies of scale? In a country and continent were families can barely care for their children’s financial needs and where government cannot be relied on to take up this responsibility who would dare have children without thinking twice about the financial repercussions of that decision?

Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga commented, “What nonsense is this? Has he (the senator) never seen the population curve that shows that family size decreases as income increases? These people really seem to be bordering on the psychotic.”

A medical practitioner, Loverage Madzura argued, “Population is vital for economic development… I stand corrected but an economist once explained that populations below 20 million have difficulties in achieving real growth. That’s why federations like USA are created, a crude example is someone making beverages…In China one would have a potential 1.6 billion customers. Even without exports lots of revenue would be generated. Local tourists would be enough to flood hotels and resorts…”

Image Credit: DFID

Despite these arguments over whether the population should increase or not, the term Africa Rising has become commonplace for anyone who cares to read and keep in touch with what’s going on. Africa’s population surpassed 1.2 billion in May 2017, a figure which represents almost 17% of the world’s population and the continent with the youngest economically active population.  African leaders have been encouraged to take advantage of this boom in population growth and boost their economies through economic integration and trade.

However, a population specialist, Eugene Linden warned last week that unless African countries adopt effective family planning programmes, the continent’s burgeoning population is more likely to yield a demographic disaster than a demographic dividend. Already UN predictions show that half the projected growth in population between now and 2050 will occur in Africa the continent with the world’s highest fertility rates and the lowest use of modern contraception. The population of 26 African countries is predicted to at least double by 2050.

Linden’s argument is that the continent is creating way less jobs than the number of young people entering the job market each year (3.7 million against 12 million, at this rate of population increase it means Africa should already be reaping the benefits of population growth but nothing has happened. Other issues such as civil wars and low growth rate, low life expectancy and high poverty and malnutrition rates also come into play.

The ushering in of the Trump administration has of course raised concerns over the possibility of many women across the continent failing to access family planning services because of the cut in funding for this programme.

This said I would say the continent should not even think about drastic measures to cut the population as done by the Chinese in the 1980s. The Chinese government made IUDs mandatory for all women of reproductive age with one child, sterilization mandatory for women with two or more children, and abortion compulsory for all unauthorized births. In my opinion this was a gross violation of women’s rights and the key to a controlled population is empowering women economically, socially and politically.

The UN posits that access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. It is also central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and is a key factor in reducing poverty. Investments in making family planning available also yields economic and other gains that can propel development forward.

Conclusively, we need to strike a balance on what works for each country and ultimately each family and individual (read women). Cohesion of any form where one’s body is concerned is counter-productive. My sincere belief is that we need to make use of the population we already have and then start thinking about growth before we find ourselves scrambling for scarce economic resources.