Is It Possible to Rescue Sub-Saharan Africa?

By Bryjak, George J. | USA TODAY, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Is It Possible to Rescue Sub-Saharan Africa?


Bryjak, George J., USA TODAY


The 46 nations that comprise Sub-Saharan Africa arguably are the most troubled countries of the Third World. All of the problems that beset developing nations exist there in their most debilitating form. These largely are attributable to rapid population growth, which directly or indirectly is related to famine, environmental degradation, civil war, massive unemployment, a growing refugee crisis, and the spread of diseases such as AIDS and the Ebola virus.

With a population "doubling time" of a mere 24 years, Sub-Saharan Africa's almost 600,000,000 inhabitants will number more than 1,200,000,000 (approximately the same population as present-day China) in the year 2020 and 2,400,000,000 (the population of the entire planet at the end of World War II) in 2044. By way of comparison, the doubling times of the U.S., Austria, and Slovenia are 114, 866, and 6,931 years, respectively.

In "An Essay on the Principle of Population," published almost 200 years ago, English economist Thomas Maithus argued that, while food production increased arithmetically (the yield per acre, for example, going up by one, two, three bushels at a time), population grew geometrically (two, four, eight, 16, etc.). Eventually, the population in any one region (and later the entire world) would outstrip the ability of its inhabitants to feed themselves. Malthus believed that, before people starved to death, many would be killed off by disease and war.

While the "Parson of Doom," as Malthus was called, did not foresee the capacity to produce enormous quantities of food via science and technology (the Industrial Revolution) and the more recent Green Revolution, it does not follow that he was mistaken regarding the world's poorest continent. Although developing nations are producing up to four times as much nourishment today as they did in 1950, two-thirds of them -- including more than 80% of African countries -- have failed to raise enough food to feed their burgeoning populations. As Stephen Vosti of the International Food Policy Research Institute stated, "Africa is a Malthusian train wreck waiting to happen."

Inasmuch as enough food is available to feed everyone on Earth, the problem of chronic hunger and malnutrition in places like Sub-Saharan Africa often is described as one of distribution, rather than production. This explanation sidesteps the economic reality of the situation. Where are Sub-Saharan nations that collectively owe world banks hundreds of billions of dollars and their legions of unemployed, impoverished citizens going to get the money to pay for this food? The combined gross national product of Sub-Saharan African nations (with the exception of South Africa) is approximately the same as that of Belgium and the Netherlands combined population of 25,700,000).

At a time when Africa's population-related woes are getting worse, wealthy countries have scaled back the amount of aid they give poor nations. As a recent United Nations publication stated, with the end of the Cold War, the rich nations have "a significantly reduced strategic interest in unstable and impoverished states." There also is a belief that much of Sub-Saharan Africa is a lost cause and, therefore, a waste of foreign aid dollars.

With warfare typically analyzed in terms of political and economic variables, most observers fail to see the relation of conflict and population pressures. In 1994 and 1995, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed in Rwanda as ethnic Hutus and Tutsis -- rivals for hundreds of years -- indiscriminately slaughtered each other. In a nation about the size of Massachusetts, the population of Rwanda increased from 2,000,000 in 1950 to 8,500,000 in the mid 1990s. Demographer Leon Bouvier noted that, even without the historical animosity between Hutus and Tutsis, Rwanda was on the road to disaster. With the population growing fourfold in less than half a century, farms were getting smaller (every male over 18 is entitled to land), marginal lands had to be used to grow crops, and there was intense pressure on natural resources. …

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