At Egypt’s National Population Conference on Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—whose government has struggled to respond to recent civil unrest over skyrocketing food prices and bread shortages—told attendees that high population growth is a “major challenge and fundamental obstacle” to development
. The following day, Egyptian Minister of Health and Population Hatem el-Gabali announced an $80 million national family planning program
with the slogan “Two children per family—a chance for a better life.” Egypt’s current fertility rate is 2.7 children per woman
With a population of 81 million, Egypt is the 16th most populous country in the world, and, according to Philippe Fargues of the American University in Cairo (AUC), excluding the desert, Egypt has the highest population density in the world—twice that of Bangladesh.
Is the government’s plan a productive long-term response to the food crisis? How can it be part of a larger package? Or is population a distraction from the real issue of corruption, as identified by interviewees in the Washington Post article where I first read about the programs.
I posed these questions to a demography and security listserv and got some interesting responses. According to Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University, a political scientist known best for her book Bare Branches on the security implications of imbalanced male-female population ratios: “Mubarak would do more to achieve his goal of 2.0 children per woman by a focused plan to raise the status of women, for example, by:
Daniel Moran, a professor in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of National Security Affairs, had this to add: “I completely agree with Valerie Hudson that the path to success on this issue, in Egypt and pretty much everywhere, is through the improved education, legal protection, and general empowerment of women. The difficulty, of course, is that in the short run doing such things is not a remedy for social instability, but a form of it. Exercising leadership in areas of this kind is a challenge even for good governments. For bad ones, it can be fatal.” He continued:
- Outlawing polygamy, or erecting such high legal barriers to it that it becomes impractical
- Fully implementing CEDAW [the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women]
- Enforcing the ban on FGM [female genital mutilation]; 97% of Egyptian women are circumcised
- Educating women on a parity with men; the median number of years of schooling for men is 6.3; that for women is 4.4
- Raising average age at first marriage for rural women (current average is 19)
- Creating more parity in family law for women in matters such as divorce, inheritance, etc.—all of which can be found in CEDAW.”
“I don’t think population pressure is a distraction from the real issue of corruption; though the government of Egypt is indeed corrupt by developed-world standards (or maybe by any standard). Corruption, which is symptomatic of state weakness, limits the ability of the Egyptian government to address this problem credibly and effectively. But it doesn’t mean they are wrong about the problem.
I was actually struck by the modesty of official ambition to reduce the fertility rate from 2.7 (which is slightly above the world median, apparently) to 2.0 (which I’m guessing is pretty close to the middle). This assumes that, basically, a steady state population of, say, 100M Egyptians would be sustainable indefinitely. I’m not so sure of that. The impact of anticipated climate change on Egypt may prove quite formidable by the end of this century. I’m not sure a leveling off after some additional increase will do the trick….Too pessimistic? I hope so.”