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By Emma Batha
Religious leaders in Niger have a key role to play in curbing its soaring population growth – a subject which until recently was taboo there, the European Union’s top aid official has said following a trip to the country where hunger is looming for millions.
When Kristalina Georgieva visited Niger two years ago she was briefed that talk about family planning would not be welcome. So she was pleasantly surprised this time to see a project teaching women about contraception and the importance of spacing births.
She was even more taken aback when she met the local Imam there.
“He was quoting the Koran saying there’s a verse that says there has to be time between the birth of children so the children and mother can recover and be strong,” Georgieva added.
The humanitarian-aid commissioner said the support of the local religious leaders at the health centre she visited in Bambey, in western Niger, was crucial for bringing down the high rate of population growth.
Since independence in 1960, Niger’s population has risen from less than 2 million to 15 million plus. Georgieva said the growth was putting a strain on a country that is among the poorest in the world, that struggles with a harsh climate and is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
But the commissioner added that she was very impressed by “the remarkable openness to address family planning”.
“At the level of the president, prime minister, ministers and cabinet there’s an openness to discussing family planning. There’s an openness that 3.3-percent population growth is not sustainable,” she added.
“There are already activities on the ground (for) family planning in a very community-based and respectful manner … The topic is not taboo anymore.”
Georgieva said back-to-back pregnancies contributed to malnutrition and kept mothers weak.
“The critical issue that needs changing is spacing the births of children,” she said. “That’s where there is potential to work hand in hand with community leaders and religious leaders. It has to be culturally acceptable to work.”
The annual hungry season in Africa’s Sahel countries is expected to begin in late February or early March – several months earlier than usual. Aid agencies say between five and nine million people are at risk.
Talking about population growth in relation to food shortages is a sensitive issue, partly because large families are considered important in many cultures, particularly where people rely on their children to help on the land and to support them in old age.
Many academics, economists and aid workers also argue that the real causes of food shortages are political and economic.
Georgieva says a food crisis is looming in the Sahel due to poor rains, bad harvests, food-price hikes and the return of migrants from Libya, among other factors.
But she also argues more generally that it is time for the world to pay more attention to managing population growth in fragile environments.
She said this “hit her between the eyes” when she visited Kenya last year and realised that when it became independent in 1963 it had more or less the same population as her own country Bulgaria – well below 10 million.
Today, Bulgaria’s population remains about the same at 7.5 million whereas Kenya’s has soared to 40 million.
Kenya is one of several countries in the grip of a major food crisis in Horn of Africa. Georgieva said the populations of other affected countries had also grown five times and this meant that when there were droughts the impact was all the more severe.
But Georgieva stressed that linking humanitarian action with managing population growth must be done in a culturally sensitive way as she saw happening in Niger.
To find out more about Georgieva’s trip to Niger and Chad click on her blog.
For a very readable look at some of the arguments on why population growth is not the cause of famine, take a look at this article published by Al Jazeera: Famine in the Horn of Africa: Malthus beware.