Thursday, 22 October 2009

Freedom to breed; freedom to starve

BBC News this morning had a segment dedicated to the most recent Ethiopian food crisis. It showed a poor farmer, whose crops had failed, unsure how he would feed his eight children.

I suppose the footage of his large family was meant to boost compassion for his plight, but for me it had the opposite effect. If he had two children, or one, he would have a much easier time providing for them. If he had none, he would have only himself and his wife to provide for (and freed from the burden of childcare, she would be better able to provide for herself).

I'm sure most 'liberal' people in the UK would defend the farmer's right to have as many children as he likes ... but balk at the suggestion that their fate should be left in his hands.

I don't want his children to suffer. It is not their fault that they have a selfish, irresponsible father. And perhaps he is just behaving the way his ancestors have always behaved. But if we are determined to intervene, we must give more than emergency aid. Indeed, by ensuring that his eight children survive, without addressing the fundamental problems, we are contributing to overpopulation, and increasing suffering in the long term. If Ethiopians breed beyond the replacement rate, the number of children facing starvation will increase exponentially.

If we are not to make the problem worse, any emergency aid must be accompanied by education and tools. Education about farming practices, and tools for irrigation. Education about family planning, and access to contraception.

Of course, as is too often the case, it seems that government action has contributed to this crisis. As Martin Plaut, the BBC's Africa analyst notes
There is no doubt poor and erratic rains have hit the Ethiopian harvest. But large parts of the country have not been hit by drought. So why the current crisis?

It is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold. So farms are passed down the generations, divided and sub-divided. Many are so small and the land so overworked that it could not provide for the families that work it even with normal rainfall.

It's unlikely that liberalisation of government policy, on its own, would be enough to avoid poverty and famine, but it seems clear that their current legislation is making matters worse.

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