The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 21st May 2009

Population and Sustainability

Given by - Louise Carver

Reviewed by - Chris Grant


On 21 May, following the AGM of the Society at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, members and guests were treated to a thoroughly informative and fascinating lecture given by Louise Carver on Population and Sustainability in Ethiopia.

Louise is the Communications Officer at the Population and Sustainability Network - website www.populationandsustainability.org - and it was clear from the start that we were in for a very well structured and interesting session.

Louise talked about population growth in Ethiopia, its causes, impacts and wider areas of influence. She admitted that this was a nuanced and complex topic and one which would rely heavily on statistics and their analysis and interpretation.

Population was the first area of discussion, looking at a country which has 2.5% growth per annum and in which there are some 10 million people potentially facing imminent starvation. The population is a very young one, with 43% being in the 15 or younger age group, leading therefore to an almost inevitable sustaining of this huge growth rate. In tandem with this goes a present fertility rate of 5.1 children per female adult. Yet fewer than 10% of women seem to use contraception of any kind.

This all has a deleterious impact on maternal health, with one in five adult female deaths being related to pregnancy. A large number of women are reported to be keen to use birth control but the problem lies in difficulty of access.

Economic growth is consequently hindered, with the Millennium Development Goals looking difficult, or even impossible, to achieve.

One of these, the aim to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, has seen some level of progress in percentage terms but, given the rapidly expanding population, is still achieving negative progress in absolute terms. Similarly any effort being made to achieve universal primary education in Ethiopia inevitably means running just to stand still in real terms. (It was at this point in the lecture that Louise engaged in some stimulating discussion with members of the audience about Ethiopia's abortion laws.)

The lecturer now turned to issues concerning the impact of population on the environment. People in the countryside have a huge reliance on their environment with considerable land degradation being the inevitable outcome. The Government's overall ownership of land in Ethiopia is perhaps an inhibition to secure personal investment in the countryside, with major concerns including desertification and water shortage.

Demographic distribution in the country leads to a very high population density in some areas, despite the large land area overall. Food insecurity follows on the back of urbanisation and deforestation.

Louise suggested that these problems need a multi-sector approach in order to make any real progress. Concerns for the environment need to be tackled hand in hand with efforts to improve the general health of people in Ethiopia and this cannot be achieved without giving due attention to matters concerning population growth and demographic spread. Climate change of course exacerbates all of these and a holistic consideration of all these areas is needed to achieve any true level of overall progress.

Population increase is clearly an important area for individual concern, being caused by a decreased level of mortality and high rates of fertility. Problems of this nature can never be simple of solution, with direct conflict existing between the need for population control and the demands of Human Rights.

Louise made a strong case for a concentration on the education of women and girls in Ethiopia so that mortality rates might improve still further and economic benefits might be produced. Family planning education would find a willing audience if only this need could be met.

Much investment has been put into the whole HIV/AIDS area of education in recent years, but this has meant a reduced concentration on family planning. With investment reallocated into this area, both maternal and infant health will benefit, women's opportunities in the workplace will improve and there will be a lowering of population pressures.

Family planning education is easy to deliver and inexpensive in economic terms. The desire for this is obviously present among the female population. The health advantages gained from such policies will lead to a stronger ability to cope with environmental change. It should be seen as a central pillar in these efforts, just needing a real sense of political will and a strong internal support to make this happen.

Questions flowed freely and knowledgeably at the end of this very fascinating lecture, with individuals not only showing their passion and personal involvement in this in particular, but proving the success and stimulation of the very expert lecture they had just heard.

First Published in News File Summer 2009

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