Response to The Economist

June 10, 2008 • Daily Email Recap

Many thanks to Steven Sinding for this response to The Economist on their review of Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: the Struggle to Control World Population.

To the Editor:

Re: your recent review of Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: the Struggle to Control World Population. You quite rightly characterize Connelly as angry, perhaps understandable and even laudable in a political commentator or pundit but inappropriate and to my mind unacceptable in a scholar. In his anger, Connelly tells only part of a complex history. As a former director of USAID’s international family planning program in the early 1980s, senior population advisor to the World Bank (1990-91), director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s population program in the 1990s, and director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (2002-06), I feel obliged to take issue with Connelly’s book, and your review, as follows.

First, as your review makes clear, Connelly blames well intentioned but misguided Western elites for imposing on developing countries a population control agenda that effectively coerced hundreds of thousands if not millions of people into involuntary fertility limitation. Yet, the vast majority of programs in developing countries were based on carefully protected principles of voluntarism. As hundreds of internationally comparable surveys in developing countries have shown (the World Fertility Survey, and Demographic and Health Surveys), these programs responded to a genuine demand, mostly from women, to have the information and the means to control their own fertility. Most countries responded with policies of voluntary family planning, along with reinforcing policies to improve girls’ education; reduce infant and young child mortality; and advance the status, rights, and employment of women. A tiny minority of countries, all in Asia, at one time or another violated these principles and two of them, India and China, are indeed, very large. But it is seriously misleading to condemn an entire movement because of the missteps of a few.

Furthermore, to the extent there have been violations of human reproductive rights, it’s been the governments of developing countries who’ve designed and perpetrated them. Indeed, the international community has long attempted to persuade these governments to suspend such policies or has condemned them outright. Whether or not these international agencies might have acted sooner or more decisively to terminate their association with those governments is a debatable point but it is simply wrong to blame the international population movement for the excesses that occurred. And there is in Connelly’s treatment of this subject a most distasteful condescension toward the developing world – as if these countries were the unwitting dupes of misleading Western prescriptions. In fact, some of the great family planning success stories, in Thailand, Bangladesh, and earlier Korea and Taiwan, were home grown – developed and implemented by intelligent and committed local leaders.

Finally, there is the assertion, enthusiastically endorsed by your reviewer, that the family planning programs made hardly any difference in affecting birthrates. Connelly derives this conclusion from a highly controversial source – a provocative and widely disputed 1994 article by economist Lant Pritchett – that has since been refuted by practically every leading expert who has examined the question of program impact. While Pritchett asserted, and Connelly accepts, that only five percent of the decline in fertility can be explained by these programs, every other analyst who has examined the question concludes that a minimum of 40 percent, and perhaps as much as 60 percent, of the decline was contributed by family planning programs – programs that responded to a previously unsatisfied demand by couples, women in particular, to limit the number of children they bore.

Connelly has revisited in admirable detail the dark corners of a highly successful and generally laudable movement to bring about population stabilization in a world where human numbers were growing at an unprecedented and unsustainable rate. It is regrettable that he has chosen to place the most negative possible interpretation on this admittedly complex history and in so doing has violated the cardinal value of his discipline – the search for truth through the objective assessment of historical data.

Steven W. Sinding

Current World Population


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