Notes on Family Planning, Food Security, and Environmental Protection for USAID’s New Administrator: Everything Old Is New Again
November 9, 2017
In 1973, the U.S. representative to the United Nations reflected on his father’s narrow loss of a Senate seat some 20 years earlier due to the “revelation” that the candidate supported Planned Parenthood. “Today,” the ambassador wrote, “the population problem is no longer a private matter…major world problems like population and environmental protection will have to be handled by large and complex organizations representing many nations and many different points of view.”
In our current moment of political polarity—with the Paris Agreement withdrawal setting an awkward stage for U.S. diplomats at this week’s Climate Conference (COP23) and the vice president advocating that we ditch the “ineffective” United Nations altogether—the position articulated above would identify its author as a left-leaning Democrat. But the George H.W. Bush of the 1970s was as much the product of his era as the promise of his party. Two prominent concerns of that era, population growth and natural resource scarcity, lend useful insights to current development debates upstream of today’s humanitarian crises. To advance his frequently stated goal of ending aid dependency, the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mark Green, would do well to take note of them.
The administrator’s tax-saving, aid-ending objectives are best pursued with investments that effectively support human development and productive potential while fostering a more prosperous and predictable relationship with the natural world as we have shaped it.
Bush’s account of a generational shift appears in the foreword to a fascinating volume profiling U.S. population policy from 1945 through 1972. Its title, World Population Crisis, reflects the anxiety of a national consciousness still saturated by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Population Bomb and Rachel Carson’s enduring warning of an ecosystem unbalanced. In 1970, agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, who is credited with having saved a billion lives, cautioned us of the dangers posed by rapid population growth in his Peace Prize address: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” 1972’s The Limits to Growth went on to harness the new computational power of the day, predicting that global ecological constraints would lead to economic collapse.
Each of these contributions would have shaped Bush’s contemporary world view. “Population growth and how to restrain it,” he wrote, “are public concerns that command the attention of national and international leaders… It is quite clear that one of the major challenges of the 1970s…will be to curb the world’s fertility.” In fact, his concerns were misplaced.
Family Planning: The Right Investment for the Wrong Reason?
As the tumultuous 1970s unfolded, the United States would become the largest donor to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), matching all other contributions in its early years. Having established an Office of Population in 1969, USAID made substantial parallel family planning investments.
Demographers describe the evolution of two concurrent “strands” of the population movement in this period. The first was a macro-oriented group of neo-Malthusians whose voices reverberated in the positions of contemporary U.S. leadership. This group concerned itself with the overall ratio of people to planet and the rapid population growth of some countries in particular. A second group focused on women’s individual reproductive rights and, by extension, on the micro health, social, and economic benefits of family planning that accrued to individuals and households. With a backdrop of soaring commodity prices abetting the narrative that we were quickly running out of everything, alarmist neo-Malthusian forecasts carried the political day.
We now know that global fertility had already peaked in the early 1960s, a decade before Bush penned his remarks. In the years that followed, unrealized prognoses of mass starvation gathered dust in the archives, for the most part. Per capita agricultural production crept steadily upwards as staple crop increases were driven almost exclusively by yield gains rather than by expanded croplands. Science, it seemed, would rescue us from an intractable Malthusian misery.
While the struts of a fear-mongering, macro-oriented justification for family planning eroded, the diffuse, micro-level benefits of access to contraception continued unabated. Regulated fertility is linked to healthier births, improved physical and cognitive development in early years, superior educational attainment and performance in early decades, and increased earnings as adults. Mothers (and fathers) who start families later and have fewer children are better able to meet the social, health, nutritional, and educational needs of each child. Evidence suggests that parents don’t work to earn more when families are larger. That is, the pie is fixed, at best, with the slice quota unknown. But while more kids don’t lead to a bigger pie, fewer kids often do. Women are more apt to work, and to work better jobs, when first afforded the opportunity to invest in their own human capital.
The U.S. government has estimated that family planning initiatives drive substantial cost reductions in other human development sectors where it simultaneously invests, such as healthcare and education. In short, the benefits of family planning ripple throughout the life course, spilling into advantages for subsequent generations, promoting prosperity and stability while engendering savings that ultimately accrue to the American taxpayer.
Beyond a Body Count: Resource Scarcity Reconsidered
The perceived threat of population pressure to outstrip a reliable natural resource supply has cropped back up across today’s warming world. News cycles suggest a planet in crisis, besieged by civil unrest, terrorist attacks, failed states, refugee flows, disease outbreaks, flood, drought, and famine. However, the risks of overpopulation are largely overstated and oversimplified. In gross supply and demand terms, the planet already produces plenty of food to feed us all, if we could all just refrain from eating like Americans.
But our global food supply is brokered by imperfectly competitive firms with lumpy distribution. Many food insecurity hot spots are simultaneously strapped by inadequate agricultural technology and production capacity, undiversified economies stifled by inept governance, depleted natural resources, poor nutrition, and large family sizes. Extreme poverty is another common thread; it doesn’t matter how much food is in the marketplace if you can’t afford to buy it. Perhaps the greatest boon to food security offered by family planning is not a reduction in mouths to feed, but an increase, both relatively and absolutely, in household resources to feed them.
Harking back to 1970, there is something disquieting about a revered man of science, Norman Borlaug, elevating Malthusian concerns upon his Nobel platform. Why was the person responsible for exponential increases in grain production so pessimistic about society’s ability to innovate its way out of resource scarcity challenges? Borlaug saw that natural resources were finite and so, too, must be the potential for humans to consume them. While his brief Laureate ceremony remarks focused on one solution to curbing consumption, slowing population growth, total demand has always been the multiplied product of population count and individual portions. A calorie of beef requires nine times as much water to produce as a calorie of pulses, and the twenty-first century is eating a lot more cows.
Agriculture soaks up 92 percent of global fresh water usage, and 29 percent of that water is used to grow animal feed. Growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, feed an additional 4 billion people without an overall increase in agricultural production. Borlaug was worried about big families when he should have been worried about Big Macs.
USAID’s New Strategy: The Most Development for Our Dollars
The presidency of George H.W. Bush marked a notable departure from the environmental ethos of his predecessor, who had spent a fair bit of energy pushing back against an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would have us living “in rabbit holes or birds’ nests.” (Last week, Ronald Reagan’s own EPA administrator issued a sharp critique of the current agency’s characteristic secrecy.) Bush aspired to be “the environmental president,” bridging partisan gaps with policy that harnessed market forces to advance conservation interests.
Another former ambassador and congressman, himself a champion of bipartisan “common-sense conservation,” recently took the helm of USAID. In both his June Senate testimony and before the House Appropriations Committee last week, Administrator Green outlined his belief that the purpose of foreign assistance is to end its need to exist, hardly a partisan position in the world of Sustainable Development Goals. “Our foreign assistance funds are precious,” he has noted. “They come from hard-working families all across this great country. We owe it to them to use these as efficiently and effectively as possible.” In remarks to USAID colleagues, he added, “we can help our partners by prioritizing programs that show measurable impact.” Hear, hear.
So what kinds of programs do show the most measurable impact? Particularly high returns stem from investments in two development domains: nutrition and family planning. In 2008, not only did nutrition (micronutrient supplementation) top a list of worthwhile investments compiled by some of the world’s foremost development economists, it appeared four more times in the group’s 15 top-ranked interventions (via fortification, biofortification, deworming, and community behavior change). Bangladesh offers recent evidence on the steep benefits of golden rice, and now there’s a new variety that’s even better.
A similar assembly of experts weighed in on the most effective targets for a post-2015 development agenda. Their analysis suggested that every $1 spent on universal access to contraception would return $120 in benefits, dwarfing dollar for dollar impacts within every other human development sector and surpassed only by investments to liberalize trade. Nutrition and family planning programs work in concert to buttress the health, intellect, and productive potential of the next generation. Given the staggering global challenges this generation will confront, it’s in all of our interest to prime it with every possible advantage.
Putting Aid Out of Business
Administrator Green anticipates that “we will need to make tough, smart choices in order to best advance our interests and values.” Some of the smartest tough choices will require a commitment to sectors and approaches bogged down by partisan politics in Washington, if not in Ouagadougou or Paris.
Four and a half decades after George Bush oversaw ballooning U.S. investments in the UNFPA, the Donald Trump administration terminated U.S. support for the lifesaving institution under false pretenses. Proposed 2018 foreign assistance spending on family planning and reproductive health, benchmarked at $606 million in 2016, is zeroed out entirely. The Mexico City Policy, the “global gag rule,” is once again reinstated and this time massively expanded. Nutrition funding, which has never amounted to much, is threatened with a 37 percent cut. The White House seeks to eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative. This is not the manner of aid retirement suggested by Green’s rhetoric.
Pound Foolish on Predictable Hazards
There is something else that Administrator Green and the elder Bush have in common: both will have presided over perhaps the most significant famines of their generations. In 1985, then-Vice President Bush embarked on a 3,000-mile journey across Sudan, Niger, and Mali to elevate the African famine for an American public. Aboard Air Force Two, he wrote to President Reagan, “Until you hold in your arms a one year old baby weighing 5 pounds or a seven year old kid weighing 14 pounds it is hard to really feel the ravages of the famine.”
Thirty-two years on, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) estimates that Nigeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen all face emergency levels of food insecurity in the coming months. On his first day in office, Green was resolute that, “in the area of humanitarian assistance, we’ll always stand with people when disaster strikes, for that’s who we are as Americans. We’ll also push ourselves relentlessly to ensure that our assistance is delivered in the most effective ways possible, helping with immediate needs and building resilience against future crises.” [emphasis added]
In 1985, an estimated 14 million people grappled with the threat of famine. Today, more than 20 million are similarly vulnerable. As with any predictable and preventable calamity, the best time to address famine will always be before it is declared. Investments in family planning, in food and nutrition security, and in market connectivity on local and global scales (including the good governance on which it depends) are just some of the tools in the development toolbox. But instead, our broken humanitarian system has led to appalling coverage gaps despite generous U.S. contributions. Funding for current food security emergencies meets just a fraction of estimated needs: ranging from 37 percent in Ethiopia to 67 percent in Nigeria. In the best humanitarian response of 2017, it is still someone’s job to determine which third of critical coverage is not so critical after all, else which third of victims sees essential needs unmet.
Climate Change and the “White House Effect”
As noted above, the Post-2015 Consensus identified just one type of development intervention that surpassed family planning’s return on investment: trade liberalization. Not only is trade a better buy, it’s a much better buy, with returns on a single dollar estimated in the thousands.
Another ascendant development sector promises returns to rival or even exceed those on improved trade, but the geographical and temporal reach of its benefits poses a challenge to quantification efforts. Climate change impacts are already born disproportionately by the poorest among us. Attention to the preparedness of their communities protects development gains where they have been hard won, while reducing the need for expensive, inefficient, and inadequate humanitarian response over and over again. Somalia is currently facing its fourth consecutive failed harvest as a result of deficient rains. By the end of the century, East Africa alone could lose 40 percent of its maize production due to climate change.
In August, Green said, “I believe the climate is changing, and I believe that it leads to impacts. We have seen it in the case of food security challenges.” Regrettably, his House testimony last week failed to reiterate this point.
On the campaign trail in 1988, not-yet-president Bush declared, “those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.” In 2017, the gales of the White House effect blow in a different direction. Budget director Mick Mulvaney has explained, “As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward—we’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money.”
And so Administrator Green finds himself in an unenviable position with fraught political incentives. On his first day, he told his staff, “I don’t want the company line. I want your judgement. I want your opinion.” But USAID can do better than opinion-based resource allocation at a moment when science is under assault. The development community, with Green’s leadership, should follow the evidence instead. The administrator’s tax-saving, aid-ending objectives are best pursued with investments that effectively support human development and productive potential while fostering a more prosperous and predictable relationship with the natural world as we have shaped it.
The preface to The Limits to Growth’s 30-year update cautions us that society has repeatedly shown an inability to respond to multigenerational problems with “wise, farsighted, and altruistic measures that disadvantage important players in the short term.” Writing in 2004, the authors reflect, “We think it will take another decade before the consequences of overshoot [of the planet’s capacity to support us] are clearly observable and two decades before the fact of overshoot is generally acknowledged.” It is worth pausing to consider how we might contextualize the evidence at hand in 2017, and what development policy leaders propose to do about.
Reid Hamel is a senior fellow with the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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