July 11 is the United Nations’ World Population Day
Over recent years, the proportion of people in the world who are living in hunger has lessened. This was due to a rise in living standards in many developing nations with its usual effect of lowering of the birth rate, and to more efficient agriculture. That said, far too many people have had insufficient food, and in some countries famine has been recurrent. The glaring inequality in a world where there is enough food for all to eat were there the will to distribute it is a scandal. And refugees ‘who flee from the devastation in the homes that have been made the battlegrounds where wealthy nations can deploy their weapons vicariously’ are at particular risk.
This year, aid workers are already warning a shortage of food and starvation in many places due generally to the effect of global warming on crops. This threat is heightened by the death and disruption caused by coronavirus around the world, by the disruption to the world’s economy, and by the weakening solidarity between nations with its effect on international aid.
This hunger has been described as a population problem, as if there are too many mouths to feed. But it is more properly one of inequality and of the lack of solidarity in the growing and distribution of food. Starvation is not a problem in wealthy societies. Even in those nations, however, the anxiety of many people about where the next meal will come from, is a sign of gross inequality. In poor nations, however, starvation is an ever-present threat.
World Population Day focuses on the growth of the world’s population and on the part that women’s choice should have in the conception and birth of children. Both these are important issues. At present, while the growth of population is slowing, it still grows by up to 100,000,000 each year. Because that growth is principally in less developed nations, it puts a heavy strain on societies that are least able to bear it. In many cultures, too, women have little agency in the processes that lead to child-rearing, and their health is damaged by many pregnancies and their complications. These are both real challenges. In developed nations, where there is most concern about over-population, however, the rate of population growth is so low that the economic development necessary to manage an ageing may depend on immigration.
That is why the focus of World Population Day needs to be broader than population control, and particularly broader than the techniques of control. It is about culture, and particularly the culture that governs the mutual relationships between governments. Viewed globally, it is in the interests of wealthy nations to support the growth and prosperity of developing nations because that is where the increase of population is at the highest rate. The immediate task is to help poorer nations feed their people, and then to build stable societies in which the birth rate will naturally decrease. Where there is solidarity between nations, advice from people in wealthy nations will be gratefully heard.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.