The goal of eliminating extreme poverty is among the top priorities of the global community and is the first of the UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, progress toward reducing poverty is threatened by the presence of too many poor people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some global leaders have drawn criticism for their patronizing comments about African fertility, including French president Emmanuel Macron. At a launch event for the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers Report, held alongside the UN’s General Assembly, Macron said that Africa’s high birth rate is “not chosen fertility,” and reflects a lack of education. “I always say: ‘Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.’”
Because of the history of coercive population control programs, “population was removed from the development vocabulary altogether,” writes Alex Ezeh in the Goalkeepers Report. “For the sake of Africa’s future, we should bring it back.”
The report argues that the decline of the extremely poor in the world could be hampered by population growth in Africa. Moreover, the report charges that because of increased African population, the number of extreme poor could begin to rise given that more than 40 percent of the world’s extremely poor live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Nigeria.
One of the problems in analyzing poverty and population is the distinction between raw numbers and percentages. Take Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country; the Gates report projects the number of people in extreme poverty will expand from 81 million to 152 million by 2050. At the same time, however, they anticipate that the percentage of Nigeria’s population in extreme poverty will decrease from 43% to 35% in the same period. In the DRC, extreme poverty is projected to fall from 67% to 41%. In other words, as the population in both countries grows, the relative share of people in extreme poverty is shrinking, not growing.
Melinda Gates has long championed international family planning, and the Goalkeepers Report highlights it as one of four priority areas, alongside HIV, agriculture, and education. One of the SDG targets is to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including family planning. But when it comes to measuring access, the UN relies on metrics better suited to measuring use, or the concept of “unmet need,” of which lack of access to services makes up only 5%.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains notable for both its high actual fertility, and its high desired fertility. While family planning advocates, including Melinda Gates, typically speak of the need to increase access to contraceptives, their real goal is to increase use and to promote a small-family norm. But the looming shadow of past abuses remains large, despite efforts by the Gates Foundation and others to bring back the demographic rationale for family planning in addition to rhetoric about human rights and choice.
Melinda Gates told the Washington Post she is frustrated with the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding for international “reproductive-rights projects,” calling it “incredibly disappointing.” While in the past Gates notably distanced her family planning advocacy from the global abortion lobby, she co-chaired a Gender Equality Council at the G7 earlier this year, that called for public funding for abortion, abortion as a component of humanitarian assistance, and the withdrawal of the Trump administration’s expanded Mexico City Policy blocking aid funding to international abortion groups.