Playing pranks with population

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Jeffrey Sachs, respected economist and adviser to the United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was reported to have warned Nigeria against population explosion, saying the 'current figure of 158 million could balloon to 730 million by 2100'. Sachs was  further quoted as saying: 'I am really scared about population explosion in Nigeria. It is not healthy. Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family.' (Daily Trust, May 25 2011).  

  I shall come back to Jeffrey Sachs later.      
In July 2011, Family Watch International, a radical U.S-based non-governmental organisation, reportedly expressed concerns over the decline in world population. Sharon Slater, president of the organisation, reportedly said:   'The developed countries are actually importing people from other countries because they don't have enough workers, they don't have enough people to support their social security system, to support the old people and run their economies.' (Vanguard, July 18, 2011). The same paper said that Slater warned Africa that if it took 'the advice to limit its population, it would eventually run into the same problem of lack of human capacity as the developed world was currently experiencing.'

Slater and Jeffery Sachs represent discordant perspectives on the population discourse. But whose position most closely mirrors the realities of the Nigerian condition?

There is no doubt that Jeffrey Sachs brings an imposing resume to the table. Believed to be one of the youngest economics professors in the history of Harvard University, Sachs became famous (or infamous - depending on which side you are) for his role as an adviser to the Eastern European countries during their transition from communism to market-based economies and to African governments during the era of the IMF/World Bank-supported structural adjustment programmes that many believe helped to exacerbate the underdevelopment crisis in the continent. His books, The End of Poverty and Common Wealth were New York Times best sellers and he has also been named one of Time magazine's '100 Most influential people in the World'. His voice therefore carries considerable weight.

      Despite his impressive resume, I believe that while Sachs who once predicted that Nigeria would join the New Economic Powers - often known by the acronym of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa so the acronym would become BRINCS), may have had the best intentions for the country in his latest outing, I am inclined to align myself with the conclusions of Sharon Slater on this.   I do so however on a different set of explanations from the ones she offered. For instance Sachs' alarm on Nigeria's population growth rate appears to re-echo the discredited Malthusian population nightmare. Critics have in fact argued that the basic premises of the population growth model formulated by Thomas Malthus, the British political economist, have been invalidated by rapid technological progress. It is for instance argued that in the technologically advanced countries, only a tiny fraction of the population produce the food that feeds the entire nation, meaning that technological progress has stretched to a point of being nearly inelastic the notion of 'carrying capacity' -    the number of individuals that an area can support without sustaining damage. This means in my opinion that the problem with Nigeria is not population growth but crisis of underdevelopment because were Nigeria to be a developed economy less than 0.5 percent of its population would be engaged in farming and would produce enough to feed the country and for export. There is also sufficient landmass to accommodate even the projected population of 730 million by 2100. In this sense Sachs seems to be proffering answers to the wrong question.        

The advice from Sachs also comes at a time when the reputation of the two Bretton Woods institution in Africa remains damaged. Has the IMF and its sister institution the World Bank really succeeded with its advice and economic prognoses in any African country? In fact, the IMF/World Bank's supported structural adjustment programmes in Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s are generally believed to have exacerbated the underdevelopment crisis in the continent. Sachs' close association with these institutions therefore means that his advice, however well-intentioned, comes with credibility deficit by association. Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve once famously said he succeeded in his job by doing the opposite of the advice from the two Bretton Woods institutions.

There are also people who are deeply suspicious of the motives of those calling on Nigeria to reduce or stem its population growth - when all the great nations of the world and those tipped to join that league are often countries with huge populations. Consider that the BRICS economies are all populous countries (with the exception of South Africa which has a population of just over 49 million). Some have in fact argued that the whole notion of regional integration in Europe (the European Union) was based on 'population envy'. Based on this, conspiracy theorists often argue that the preaching about stemming population growth in Nigeria is to prevent the country from posing the sort of economic threat that India and China today pose to the advanced economies of the West. It is instructive that the Scandinavian countries, which enjoy the highest standards of living in the world, are rarely regarded as significant players in world affairs largely because of their small populations.

There is also something that does not add up in the predictions of population catastrophe for Nigeria. If, as official statistics suggest, the life expectancy is less than 50 years, how come that Nigeria is seen as facing a population Armageddon?   Common sense will seem to suggest that the country may need a relatively healthy population growth rate to replenish and sustain current figures.

      I am obviously not advocating that people should simply 'go and multiply' so that their 'descendant will be uncountable as the stars'. I am only against externally imposed population control measures. I do however believe that each family should know its 'carrying capacity' and plan accordingly. As individuals we are all enthralled by different values: one family may desire to have just one child so that they can travel round the world while another cares less about travelling round the world but derives maximum satisfaction from the number of children it has. Values are relative. What is therefore needed may be an enlightenment campaign for each family to decide on what is its own population carrying capacity, not a fiat limiting of family size.  

National Identity Numbers: Forward to the past?  
  The recent announcement that the National Identity Management Commission will start issuing National Identity Numbers (NIN) from August 1 2011 raises a number of interesting issues. The thinking behind the project is obviously a noble one and the potential benefits are numerous - it could for instance help the governments to plan the provision of social services and improve the efficiency in tax and motor vehicle administrations as well as in fighting crimes. Our experiences have however shown that the road to many projects in this country are paved with good intentions. The intentions of a project are therefore not enough. Its operations on the ground are what matters. The National Identity Management Commission must convince Nigerians that NIN   will not go the way of its progenitor, the National ID project, which started in 2003 and quickly became enmeshed in controversies and allegations of fraud and corruption. It must also assure Nigerians that the scheme will not intrude on people's privacy. Also with identity theft being a serious issue even in the advanced economies of the West, NIMC must convince Nigerians that the 'Nigerian factor' and the pervasive corruption it breeds will not lead to the NIN generating a black market on people's identities. More importantly, with census being an ever contentious issue in the country (because population is linked to the voting strength of sections of the country), NIMC must equally allay any fears that the NIN scheme is a sort of census through the back door.    

  Jideofor Adibe (