A provocative opinion piece authored by Patrick Mbataru, titled Kenyans should forget about family planning and multiply in the 13 July 2016 edition of The Standard caught our attention. We were dismayed at the disjointed and also misleading arguments he made against the need for family planning in Kenya. If the writer feels he has a strong case against the need to plan families, it would have been fair to readers for him to capture the context in which the 17th Century social theorists, that he quotes to support his argument, advanced their ideas. Doing so would have made his argument more logical and clearer. The other issue with this piece is that despite it being supposedly about Kenya, the writer devotes less than two paragraphs to the country context, and does not contextualise his arguments to realities in Kenya. After much difficulty to grasp the point of his erratic opinion, we understand him to be saying the following: Kenyans need to multiply since limiting population size is bad for them; family planning programmes are based on controversial 17th-century race and class theories advanced by developed countries to control poor and underdeveloped countries; and that Kenyans really need not worry about large populations simply because countries with large populations such as India, China, and Bangladesh feed themselves and even leave a surplus. Primarily, the aim of family planning programmes is to enable families to have the number of children they prefer and when they choose to. This is only possible through voluntary access to these services and should not be equated to population control.
“The argument that family planning programmes target poor people to control their growth is also not supported by evidence.”
Evidence from the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey revealed that women in Kenya on average are having about one child more than they wish to. This shows that there is a non-coerced demand for family planning. While the logic of family planning might find resonance with the writings of the likes of Malthus, it is incorrect to attribute the contemporary family planning movement to Malthus. Modern family planning programmes have evolved radically to embrace non-coercive family planning approaches to policies and programmes. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, explicitly condemned coercive family planning and adopted voluntary programmes as the guiding principle for national family planning programmes. This does not ignore well-documented past state-sanctioned practices that coerced women to adopt family planning in some countries like India, China, and Peru. It is also important to note the wide-ranging benefits of family planning beyond the narrow perception of limiting population size. These include improving maternal and child health, empowering women, economic growth and environmental preservation. Family planning reduces unwanted pregnancies and births and their associated costs, reduces pregnancy-related complications and abortions and eventually reduces the dependency burden, resulting in less spending on social services such as education and health care. Reduced dependency burden results in increased savings, which can be re-invested in the economy, resulting in the demographic dividend to stimulate rapid economic growth. Kenya’s current economic growth of 5.3 percent cannot sustainably support the current annual addition of 1 million people. Concerted measures are required to ensure the economy grows at a higher rate than the population so that the increasing demand for services arising from the population growth is met. Family planning is one way of ensuring that population growth is balanced with economic growth.
The argument that family planning programmes target poor people to control their growth is also not supported by evidence. For instance, the 2014 Demographic and Health Survey showed that at least six out of 10 women in the top 20 percent wealthiest households in Kenya were using family planning methods, compared to only three of 10 in the bottom 20 percent. The same survey shows women in these poor households have more unwanted pregnancies, experience higher death rates of their children, and are less educated, compared to those in rich households. Thus the perceived targeting of the poor by family planning programmes is, in fact, an effort at bridging these inequalities and breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty. This would support the inclusive socio-economic growth focus the writer rightly advocates for. Kenyans should be encouraged to plan their families and use all available means to ensure that they get their preferred number of children. Family planning should, therefore, be promoted ensuring equality both geographically and across socio-economic levels.
This article was originally posted in the Standard newspaper, 8th August 2016.
Ms Mueni is a Knowledge Translation Officer, Dr Onyango and Dr Ferdinand Okwaro are Knowledge Translation Scientists at the African Institute for Development Policy.