7 September 2018

Egypt seeks fewer babies: South Korea wants more

Egypt’s government has announced welcome plans to curb its rapid population growth as part of its 2018-2022 medium-term sustainable development plan. Meanwhile, South Korea is adopting policies to increase its birth rate.

This move is a result of the government’s struggle to provide sufficient access to basic public services, including education, health care and housing, to its more than 99 million citizens.

The four year plan aims to reduce the growth rate from its current 2.65% to 2.1% by 2022. Importantly, the plan also includes targets for alleviating poverty and decreasing illiteracy.

Overcoming challenges

Currently, almost 30% of Egyptians live below the poverty line and the illiteracy rate is 20.1%. Illiteracy is higher for women, in particular in rural areas where an estimated 32.9% of females cannot read or write, a trend which is strongly correlated with high fertility rates.

As well as gender inequality, the government recognizes the challenge of overcoming religious and cultural resistance to birth control and is attempting to leverage Islamic media and leaders to raise awareness of the benefits of family planning.

Environmental damage

In addition to putting tremendous pressure on basic public services, Egypt’s large population is exacerbating environmental damage. Almost 60,000 acres of land are lost to soil erosion and housing construction every year while Egypt’s share of vital water from the overexploited and climate-stressed Nile has not increased since the 1950’s.

To avoid a looming catastrophe and improve the quality of life of its people, it is imperative that Egypt succeeds in its plans and raises its ambition. Proactive and compassionate family planning campaigns yield dramatic positive results and can help stabilize populations at sustainable levels.

South Korea calls for more children

Earlier this week, a study announced that South Korea’s fertility rate would fall to an all-time low of 0.96% this year, causing the media to proclaim the usual ‘looming disaster’.

South Korea’s population is currently just over 51 million, roughly half the size of Egypt. South Korea’s land area, however, is only one tenth that of Egypt. While South Korea does not face the same drought stress, it has its own multitude of environmental problems exacerbated by its high population density, including rapid deforestation, soil erosion, climate change, as well as air and water pollution.​

Economists and the governments they influence fear underfunded pensions, plummeting GDP and increasing debt as inevitable outcomes of a low birth rate. Following a post-war baby boom in the 1950’s, South Korea launched a campaign to try to limit the number of children per woman to two. Now, just like China, the South Korean government is trying to reverse its declining fertility trend.

Pushing for more births is a short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive response to changing demographics in low fertility countries – driven partly by the power of ‘growth-at-all-costs’ economic systems. Ageing populations certainly bring challenges with them but with careful planning we can cope with them without inducing widely feared economic collapse.