There is a stiff philosophical debate over poverty and fertility. One school maintains that a growing population is the main driver of economic growth while the other says poverty is a drain on resources that could have been used for faster growth. While the first emphasises the pervasive entrepreneurial spirit of humanity, the second focuses on the allocation of resources that already exist.
I suspect reality finds a place somewhere between these two opposing views, and that ultimately a phenomenon as complex as fertility and poverty, will encompass many facets all ranging across the same spectrum. I also believe that not any single aspect can be viewed in isolation, and that despite the best academic attempts, poverty will always have to consider fertility, and fertility will always have a causal relationship to poverty.
In a developed society one would like to think that fertility is as much part of a managed society as are voting, finding a job, paying taxes, or paying for a good education. But this is not always the case, and there are several studies that focus specifically on the effect of fertility in even the most advanced countries. Even rich societies have poor people or marginalised communities, and the link between poverty and fertility can be found the moment the research moves to the lower income section of any population.
In Africa it is much simpler. People generally have large families. Or phrased differently, many children in an extended household, used to be the norm. The further a family finds itself from the main centres of economic activity, the bigger the propensity for large families. As individuals in a society climb the rungs from least developed to developed, the smaller the families become. But this is not a one-generation process, and sadly, we find ourselves surrounded by communities of whom the vast majority will remain poor. The breadwinners in these families do not earn enough to sustain their large families and to pay for the education that inevitably supports the process of development.
Fundamentally, the choice of how many children a husband and a wife want, is a personal affair. But fertility does not only refer to those children born in a conventional household. I think locally we have many more children not belonging to any particular family or home, than those fortunate enough to grow up in one home, with one set of parents. So fertility in Africa has another dimension and this determines the future for the majority of all children.
I am all for planned parenthood. My approach relies on the willingness of the parents to take care of and raise their own children. But to be able to do this, they must have the means. Unfortunately, the poorer a family, the bigger the number of children. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of children that do not belong to any particular family where the mother is exposed to all sorts of evils to survive. All these children are the result of unplanned parenthood, or rather, accidental parenthood.
The other sad reality is that many of the young fathers do not have the slightest inclination to look after their offspring. Once the lover gets pregnant, she is discarded for another. Then the poor young women must either return to her parents home, if there is one, or send her baby back to the rural area from where she came, to be raised by her mother. The results is the many villages where I find old people, mostly women, hordes of infants and toddlers, some children of school going age, but no teenagers, no young people, and not a single young individual that will set the next generation on a solid footing. The gap is glaringly obvious and is not restricted to any particular region. Wherever I visit villages, I find a repeat of this pattern. I think these people are basically lost for the current generation as well as the next.
Then there is the case of many young families where there is a father and a mother occupying a steady home on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. But by the time this young couple reaches the age of thirty, the number of dependents may already exceed six, if not more. These people are also lost for development, and can at best hope to scrounge together some way of making a living to be able to send at least some of the children to school. This I also encounter only too often but this pattern is more prevalent in the shanty areas surrounding the larger towns and cities.
So, whichever part of the philosophical spectrum you find yourself on, realise that this debate is entirely useless for a poor couple with simply too many children to take care of. The only way we shall see a meaningful reduction in the number of unwanted children, is if it becomes government policy. And then the problem must be prevented, not tried to be patched after the event.