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Unchecked Population Growth: A Neglected Challenge for Ethiopia’s Future

By Shimels Hussien (PhD)

While global projections on human fertility rate and population growth suggest a potential slowdown in coming decades, the immediate future presents a significant challenge, especially for developing nations like Ethiopia. Here, unchecked population growth threatens to outpace advancements, straining resources and hindering progress on the path to a brighter future. I write this article to advise because today is July 11, which is World Population Day, and I am very concerned with the unchecked population growth in Ethiopia. Population growth in Ethiopia is very concerning and remains neglected by both ordinary citizens and the government. This article aims to clarify some misunderstandings about population growth, examine the drivers of population growth (fertility rate), highlight the dangers of uncontrolled birth, and explore approaches to control it.

Here, fertility rate is the average number of children a woman would have in her lifetime based on current birth rates at different ages (15-49 is typical). A fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is generally considered the replacement rate. This means, on average, each woman is having enough children to replace herself and her partner in the population, assuming no net migration and constant mortality rates.

Debates surrounding the drivers of fertility rates often point towards simplistic explanations like religion and culture. However, a deeper look reveals a more nuanced picture. Education and socioeconomic status play a far more significant role than religion or culture. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, despite differing religions and cultures, share low fertility rates (below 2 fertility level) due to high levels of education and development. For instance, countries like Afghanistan and Burundi share the same level of high fertility despite Afghanistan being a Muslim country and Burundi being a Christian country. Both Muslim and Christian nations with low socioeconomic status levels exhibit higher fertility rates. Conversely, both Muslim and Christian nations with high socioeconomic status levels exhibit lower fertility rates. This shows that religion and culture aren’t really the reason. Instead, the key is education, especially for women. When women are educated, they tend to have fewer children. When women are less educated, they tend to be good baby machines.

Ethiopia’s population is booming, with an average woman having around 4.5 children in her lifetime. This high fertility rate of 4.5 is driving rapid population growth in the country and presents a daunting challenge given the country’s economic constraints. The economy remains limited and underdeveloped, characterized by limited job opportunities and scarce resources. Consequently, the burgeoning population exacerbates the strain on the economy, which is already struggling to support and absorb the existing workforce. This economic stagnation has led to a widespread desire among Ethiopians to seek better prospects abroad. Many individuals and families are looking beyond the country’s borders, hoping to find employment and improved living conditions in other nations. This trend of migration underscores the urgent need for economic reforms and development initiatives that can create sustainable job opportunities and resources within Ethiopia itself.

Ethiopia faces a unique set of challenges that contribute to its high birth rates. The country is grappling with widespread poverty, low literacy levels, and deeply rooted religious beliefs. This trifecta creates a perfect storm that encourages larger family sizes, driven by several key factors. Firstly, many impoverished families in Ethiopia hold the belief that having more children will eventually lead to better financial support in their old age. This expectation is based on the hope that some of these children will secure jobs, possibly abroad, and send remittances back home, providing a safety net for their parents. Secondly, a common cultural belief in Ethiopia is that every child is born with their own fortune. This notion alleviates worries about the economic strain of raising multiple children, as it is thought that each child will bring their own luck and resources into the family. Thirdly, religious convictions play a significant role in shaping attitudes towards family planning. Many Ethiopians believe that using contraceptives is against their religious teachings and the will of God. This belief discourages the use of birth control methods, leading to larger families. Lastly, there is a widespread perception that children will thrive by their own fortune, regardless of parental involvement. This belief reduces the perceived necessity for parents to invest heavily in their children’s upbringing and education, fostering a more laissez-faire approach to child-rearing. These cultural, religious and socioeconomic factors collectively contribute to Ethiopia’s high birth rates, posing a complex challenge for policymakers and development practitioners aiming to balance population growth with sustainable development. Understanding these underlying drivers is crucial for devising effective strategies to address the issue and improve the overall quality of life for Ethiopians.

The question then arises: how do we address this issue? Globally and broadly, there are two primary approaches to population control: the Western model and the Eastern model. The Western model of population control is based on the principle of individual rights and freedoms. It operates on the belief that as societies develop and education levels rise, fertility rates will naturally decline. This model emphasizes women’s education and empowerment, access to contraception, and the improvement of healthcare systems. Among its advantages, the Western model upholds individual freedoms and rights, allowing people to make personal choices regarding family size without government interference. By focusing on education, especially for women, the model ensures long-term sustainable development. Educated women are more likely to participate in the workforce, delay marriage, and have fewer children. Additionally, increased access to healthcare and family planning services improves maternal and child health, reducing mortality rates. However, the Western model has its disadvantages. This model relies on gradual social changes, which can be slow, especially in countries with low literacy rates and poor infrastructure. Implementing widespread education and healthcare improvements requires significant financial and human resources, which is scarce in developing countries. In some societies, cultural norms and traditions may resist changes promoted by the Western model, hindering its effectiveness. 

The Eastern model of population control involves direct government intervention to regulate birth rates. This approach has been implemented in countries like China and India, with varying degrees of success and controversy. The Eastern model’s advantages include rapid implementation—government policies can be enforced quickly, leading to immediate reductions in birth rates. This is crucial for countries facing urgent population crises. By controlling population growth, governments can better allocate resources for sustainable development, improving living standards and economic growth. Additionally, the Eastern model allows for targeted family planning programs, which can be tailored to the specific needs of different regions and communities. 

In the context of Ethiopia’s current socio-economic landscape, a model similar to China and India’s might be more relevant. While individual rights are paramount, relying solely on the Western model assumes a developed society where individuals naturally choose smaller families. Ethiopia, with a high illiteracy rate, high poverty and a young population, needs a more proactive approach to ensure sustainable development for all. The urgency of the population growth issue requires immediate and decisive action, which the Eastern model can provide. While it is important to respect individual rights, the dire consequences of unchecked population growth necessitate a more proactive approach. The Eastern model’s ability to deliver rapid results is crucial for Ethiopia. With a high illiteracy rate and limited resources, waiting for gradual social changes promoted by the Western model may not be feasible. Government intervention can ensure that population growth is controlled in a timely manner, preventing further strain on resources and infrastructure. By controlling population growth, the government can better allocate resources to improve living standards. This includes investing in education, healthcare, and sustainable development practices. With a manageable population size, these resources can be more effectively utilized, leading to overall economic growth and development. However, Ethiopia currently seems to be following the wrong approach—the Western model. This is not because the Western model is more appropriate for Ethiopia, but because Ethiopia is getting more aid from the West. Western countries often force aid-receiving nations to adopt their policies, irrespective of whether these policies fit the context of the receiving countries. If Ethiopia continues with its current negligent approach and fails to adopt the Eastern policy of strict governmental control, the population will grow too much and way above the economy. This will lead to only the cheapening of human life in Ethiopia. 

In conclusion, despite its undeniable impact on Ethiopia’s future, population growth remains a neglected societal issue. To achieve sustainable development and improve the lives of its citizens, Ethiopia’s government must consider adopting elements of the Eastern model, prioritizing targeted family planning initiatives. However, the solution cannot solely rest on policy. Ethiopian families must also embrace a culture of responsibility, carefully considering their capacity to provide for children before expanding their families.

Dr. Shimels Hussien is a Researcher and Ass. Professor of Public Health at St. Paul Hospital’s Millennium Medical College, Addis Ababa. He can be reached at: shimelsh@gmail.com

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com


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6 COMMENTS

  1. ጸህፊው የቢዝነስ ኮንሰት ጨርሶ የለውም። በኢትዮጵያ የህዝብ ብዛት በጣም ጠቃሚ ነው። ኢትዮጵያን ለሚያክል አገር 130 ሚልየን የህዝብ ቁጥር በጣም ትንሽ ነው። ጸሃፊው የሚወለደውን ሁሉ በላተኛ እንጂ አምራች አይደለም ብሎ ያስባል። የሚወለደው ሰው እጅ እግር አለው፣ መስራት ይችላል። ተፈላጊው ጥሩ የኢኮኖሚ ፖሊሲ፣ ህግ እና ፍትህ ብቻ ነው። The carrying capacity of Ethiopia is far greater than 130 million people.

    • Mr Mekuria, based on what you’re saying China and India applied strict population policies because they lacked business mentality?

  2. Dr Shimels I really appreciated your view and shared concern on the topic, because this topic should be a concern for all of us as ELEPHAN IN THE ROOM. Indeed, uncontrolled population growth is not a blessing for every country unless the country able to provide all the required resources for the generation in fair and equitable manner. In this regard, the country like Ethiopia posing a serious challenge to fulfill the minimum basics of living for its citizens. As you mentioned uncontrolled population growth is a big concern, but in my view, there is no common understanding between different actors’ especially the government has a lion share to provost with some sort of guiding models, at least we didn’t see the Ethiopian government philosophy on the issue, or it is neglected topic. So, such kind of discussions are a promising step and windows of hope to engage and influence all concerned actors at different level and to go through the controlled population policy with due respect all the human right issues.

    • Author and also people who supported the author idea in the comments above (Tibebu etc), could you answer the following? In Ethiopia, isn’t it a taboo to talk about population size? Also, the regions (oromia, amahra, debub, tigray, all regions) are competing by population number. For example, one of the Amhara party (Abin Nama) leader said 4 years ago, Amhara mothers should stop using family planning methods, instead give more births. So, do you think they would agree with growth restrictions?

      • Mr. Taye K,
        Indeed, as you mentioned it is a big resistance intermingled with religious thoughts and political driven miscalculated advantages. But, as to me the big question we should aware that in our country existing context uncontrolled population growth is it challenge or a blessing? If we agree it is a challenge, we can step to the next level on how to address the issues including the approaches to reach out. Because, as it is said “knowing the exact problem is halfway to a solution”.

  3. This is indeed an important issue of serious concern. But, the government attention is on wars and falling to address this issue. Thanks to the author. Thank you also Borkena to publishing perspectives on neglected but concerning agendas like this. We need more writings like this because we’re tired of reading about all the same and endless Ethiopian political discourse.

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