To Explain Botswana’s Fall In Fertility


The Guardian wants to tell us that something special has happened in Botswana. The fertility rate has fallen from 7 children per woman in the 1960s to under 3 now. What actually happened here? The answer being not as The Guardian tells us:

Outposts like these – offering family planning services, contraception, education – have helped bring about one of the world’s most remarkable demographic shifts. In a continent where fertility rates are the highest in the world and populations are soaring, Botswana has a different story to tell.

Fifty years ago, Botswanan women would have seven children on average. Now they have fewer than three. It’s one of the fastest falling fertility rates anywhere in the world – a dramatic decline that merits scrutiny.

Scrutiny perhaps but we do already know the correct answer. And it’s not the provision of contraception. The standard finding is that only 10% of the decline in fertility comes from that ability to control fertility. Sure, of course people should have access to it if that’s what they want. But the other 90% comes from a decline in desired fertility. What causes that?

But enabling women to control their fertility – a move that almost inevitably leads to them having fewer babies – is not just about a tussle over resources, or the environment: it brings enormous ramifications for women’s health, education and employment – with knock-on effects for society and the economy.

So what did Botswana get right?

It’s not the enabling, it’s the desire to.

“There’s been a huge amount of change in Botswana,” she says, pointing out that since Botswana became an independent country in 1966 the landscape developed quickly, with high levels of economic growth

That’s it. Or this is:


Or perhaps this:

Botswana’s GDP Per Capita reached 7,723.32 USD in Dec 2017, compared with 7,050.90 USD in Dec 2016. Botswana GDP Per Capita data is updated yearly, available from Dec 1964 to Dec 2017, with an average number of 2,767.05 USD. The data reached an all-time high of 7,723.32 USD in Dec 2017 and a record low of 76.67 in Dec 1965.

Botswana’s certainly a middle income country, if not a developed one by that GDP per capita. And thus it has a fertility rate like that of a middle income of developed country. For, as we really do know:

Sure, as we get richer we live longer, this produces a bolus of population. But richer people have fewer children – no rich country has, absent immigration, a fertility rate that will even replace the current number of people. As places become richer, that fertility rate falls to and then below that replacement rate. We’ve not observed anywhere at all where this does not happen.

No, this isn’t about access to contraception, desirable though that obviously is. If people want it they should have it. Rather, it is the change in desired fertility which is some 90 per cent of the difference in the number of children arriving. Children not dying of those ancient plagues of infancy means fewer are desired, the move to an urban existence means the former rural value of young hands declines and so on.

There’s no mystery here. As a place gets richer the people of that place have fewer children. That’s just the way that we  humans work. This is so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves that it’s included in all the models we use to talk about climate change. A poorer future has more people in it, a richer fewer. All that wibble at Paris and COP is based on this simple truth. And if it’s so basic that even they get this right then perhaps there’s no mystery that it’s necessary to scrutinise?

Sure, provide rural health care, contraception, family planning. They all make human lives better so obviously we should do this. But it’s economic development, getting gloriously rich, which reduces population growth so if you want to have fewer people around in the future then do the things which make economies grow. You know, neoliberal globalisation.

There’s really no mystery to it:

Higher incomes, fewer children. Credit, Federal Reserve so public domain