Politics of population and wealth


Businessman with retirement money plan concept. PHOTO | POOL

On 15 November 2022, the United Nations said the world population reached eight billion people. On the occasion of World Population Day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres cited advancements in health that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates.

Global life expectancy at birth reached 72.8 years in 2019 and further reductions in mortality are projected to result in average global longevity of around 77.2 years in 2050.

Thomas Malthus would be turning in his grave. In his groundbreaking 18th-century work on population theory, he postured that the world’s finite resources can’t cope with an increasing population, alluding to the fact that restrictions on population growth are crucial for a nation’s prosperity.

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In fact, he claimed that no State in history has existed which did not try to limit the growth of population in some way, either by preventing early marriages among the lower classes, or limiting it amongst the better off, for fear that they could not maintain their standards of living.

Malthus’ groundbreaking work kicked off a series of population control programmes in the 1960s (some of which left undesired consequences up to date, especially in China and India).

But critiques of his work point to some weakness(es) in his theory; most notably, technological advances in agriculture which have enhanced food security globally.

Technology has given birth to precision agriculture, where the practice of farming has become more accurate (think of a greenhouse where all conditions required for food growth can be artificially controlled in terms of timing and quantity). Criticisms notwithstanding, Malthus can be credited with the invention of population politics.

Malthus’ work on population theory was based on subsistence, which, to a very large extent, is made up of food. However, in a food-secure world, neo-classical population theory replaces subsistence with wealth.

Indeed, modern population politics, especially in the Kenyan context, is about wealth. Who gets what, or whose turn is it to eat?

In fact, more often than not, the advancement of certain wealth orders, especially interests concerning the preservation of the prosperity of the wealthy one per cent, takes precedence.

In 2018, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics published a report on well-being in Kenya, which is based on its 2015/16 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey.

In summary, the bureau found that national poverty rates in the ten-year period of 2005/06 and 2015/16, fell to 36 per cent, from 46 per cent, which is quite commendable.

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Further, the bureau noted that while the poverty rate declined substantially, the overall total number of persons living below the poverty line declined marginally from 16.6 million in 2005/06 to 16.4 million in 2015/16.

This growth was also higher than the 2.2 per cent intercensal growth rate recorded in the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census results. In other words, the pace of poverty reduction had only just overtaken the pace of population growth.

Did population control work? The jury is still out. How about the transfer of national wealth? In the same ten-year period when the well-being survey was conducted, national wealth, as measured by nominal gross domestic product (GDP), grew by a whopping 16 per cent in compounded terms.

As a result, both the pace of poverty reduction as well as population growth did not overtake the pace of the nation’s wealth growth. In essence, the national wealth creation grew faster than population growth, which implies that the per capita wealth should be higher.

But does per capita wealth translate into household well-being? Of course, it doesn’t.

It should be a worry that even as wealth creation outpaces population growth, this wealth continues to remain in the hands of a few (and the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen).

Which also calls for a paradigm shift in some of the country’s economic policies. Can a bottom-up approach narrow the gap? But the bottom line, be wary of GDP fetishists.