A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about the crude birthrate (births per 1000 people) in Egypt rising to 32, a level not seen since 1991. Last year, there were 2.6 million births in Egypt, bringing the population to around 84 million people. What is interesting about this is the divergence in views presented in the article.
The headline of the article insinuates that the blame for this rise is the “vanishing” of “birth control policies”. The new Islamist government has, since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, “avoided public discussion about population and dropped the awareness campaigns of the past”. This is in sharp contrast to the previous policies of Mubarak, who:
“… expanded family planning programs and publicity campaigns to curtail population growth that he blamed for crippling Egypt’s development.”
Now, as the New York Times itself states, the new government under Mohamed Morsi has “continued financing for family planning programs”. So what is the problem? The problem is that the government has not said anything about the population problem. Instead, health officials have “taken a starkly different view of climbing birthrates, presenting the problem as one of economic management – not the size of the population”. This has “alarmed” population experts:
“The birthrate is important. It is not right to ignore the population problem,” said Hassan Zaky, a demographer who teaches at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. “Before, there was a clear policy. Now, we don’t know where we are going. We don’t know the view of the state.”
“Dr. Nahla Abdel-Tawab, the Egypt director of the nonprofit Population Council, said of the Mubarak years: “The president himself used to talk about population increases. It was in the newspapers, in the prime minister’s speeches.”
Now, population has seemed to vanish from public discussion. Health workers said they were stunned when Dr. Abeer Barakat, an assistant minister for health who is responsible for family planning, made no explicit mention at a United Nations conference in December of population or family planning in describing the Health Ministry’s priorities.”
“The latest population spikes could represent behavioral shifts resulting from the revolution, “because people are under pressure,” said Hisham Makhlouf, who teaches demography at Cairo University.
“That’s one theory,” he said. “The other is that it’s because no one talks about the population problem like before.”
So, the government has not stopped funding family planning policies. But it has stopped talking about people having only 2 children and has stopped advertisements with slogans such as: “Before you have another baby, secure its needs.” So, the logic goes, in this governmental silence, without the soothing tones of constant referral to small families, the people of Egypt, those sheep-like masses who can’t think for themselves, turn back to their instinctual ways and have far too many babies. Seriously? The people who rose up in a revolution only a couple of years ago and braved their previous government’s soldiers and policemen to topple Mubarak are bereft of ideas about how to limit their family size without the government telling them to? Isn’t this just another example of the worshipping of the state as the omnipotent deity who can and should control all of our decisions (including the most intimate one of deciding to bring another child into the world)? Those poor Egyptians, without the steady hand of the state to guide their thoughts they are like babes in the wood.
This is one view. Another view is presented by members of Egypt’s government and by some real life Egyptian people(!) First the Islamist view:
“For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservatives chafed at Mr. Mubarak’s almost single-minded focus on contraception and two-child families as a core component of public policy. Mr. Mubarak used family planning — a foreign imposition — to mask the government’s failed strategies, some Islamists said.
“The real problem is with us, as an administration,” said Hamid al-Daly, a representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party and a member of the health committee in Egypt’s upper house of Parliament. “The population in China is over a billion, but there is good management and good utilization of resources. The population is a blessing if we use it well, and a curse if we mismanage the crisis.”
And what about the assistant minister for health who didn’t mention population control to the UN?
“In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Barakat said she had simply been trying to inject balance into the debate about population and planning, to reflect the new government’s priorities. “What was shocking for them was that I talked about family health, and family planning as part of family health,” she said.
Dr. Barakat, a former official in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing before joining the Health Ministry, said she was seeking to redress imbalances in the previous government’s approach to health care. Mr. Mubarak, she said, “was biased” toward family planning and ignored urgent concerns like cancer and hepatitis C.”
In stark contrast to the near-monomania of some others in the article, isn’t the following a breath of fresh air common sense?
“And while she said that family planning programs would continue to be a part of health policy, she also said the government should play no role in encouraging families to limit the number of children they have. “Assigning a number is against reproductive freedoms, and against human rights,” [Barakat] said.
“They are not rabbits, to stop giving birth,” she said. “Manpower is a treasure.”
Wow, do you hear that? Apparently Egyptians are not rabbits who are only restrained from breeding by their benevolent government. And if this needed confirmation:
“Mohamed Rabia Ali, 62, a construction worker who lives with seven members of his family in a cramped apartment, said that Mr. Morsi could establish new communities in the desert to alleviate the housing crisis, and focus on providing more jobs for young people. The government does not need to tell Egyptians how many children to have. “The creator takes care of the created,” he said.”
Which is the more healthy view? The one in which the state is, and should be, the arbiter of family sizes, either through covert or overt propaganda and pressure (Mubarak Egypt) or through the forced abortion of children and sterilisation of women (China)? Or the one that refuses to allow the state to assign a number to the number of children we should be having and realises that “manpower is a treasure”? No, not a plague Sir David. Not a plague.