On September 5, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated the first Global Congress on Population, Health, and Development. The four-day event was convened to examine the issue of population growth in relation to sustainable development. Opening the conference, Sisi discussed the topics as they affected Egypt in particular. He was clear – the balance between population levels and sustainable development was way out of kilter.
“During the 1950s,” said Sisi, “the gap between state resources and population growth was approximately 10-12 percent, and the population ranged between 19 and 20 million people. The gap was not large.”
Since 2000 Egypt’s population has grown by 40 million and now stands at 105 million people. Its birth rate is currently 2 million per annum. Available resources, said Sisi, dictated that Egypt has to reduce that by no less than 80 percent, that is to no more than 400,000 births per year.
Sisi picked up on a reported remark by his health and population minister, Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, that “having children is a matter of complete freedom”. He was scornful. Leave the freedom to choose their family size to people who potentially do not know the extent of the challenge? “The whole of society and the Egyptian state will pay the price,” he said. “We must organize this freedom, otherwise it will create a catastrophe.”
Hinting that Egypt could emulate China’s one-child policy (abandoned in 2016), since China “succeeded in their population control policy,” he added that other African countries should also adopt population control measures, since the continent lacks sufficient resources to sustain its surging population.
“For example,” he said, “on the African continent, within a few years, we will reach more than 1.6 billion people, and the resources in Africa [abundant though they are]…cannot take care of it all.”
When Egypt’s health minister Ghaffar took the stage, he was careful to by-pass the remark his president had rejected about freedom of choice on family size, and maintained that the problem of a growing population is Egypt’s greatest challenge, both now and in the future.
“It hinders the wheel of economic growth,” he said, “and eats up all development returns, which affects the level of services provided to citizens and their standard of living. This requires us to work to achieve a balance between economic growth and population growth to ensure the … well-being (of) all.”
Ghaffar was unequivocally in favor of Egypt’s official line on population control. He stressed the state’s commitment to implementing a population program aimed at achieving a balance between population growth rates and the resources available to the state, within the framework of achieving sustainable development.
“Family planning,” he announced, “is the largest investment project that, if Egypt adopts it, will bring it profits and benefits, as every pound the state spends on family planning saves 151.7 pounds in return.”
This first Global Congress on Population, Health and Development provided a rare opportunity for researchers and policy makers from across the world to exchange first-hand information on the relationship between population, health and sustainable development. The conference brought together decision-makers, health ministers from different countries, ambassadors, international partner agencies, UN and USAID, banking entities, entrepreneurs and the media. It is no surprise that the Global Congress is scheduled to become an annual event, probably to be staged – as this one was – in Egypt’s prestigious new capital city, as yet only partially constructed and unnamed, but unofficially dubbed the New Administrative Capital.
It might be tempting, if cynical, to perceive a connection between the presidential plea to reduce the nation’s birth rate on resource grounds, and the state’s lavish funding of prestige projects. First announced in 2015, Egypt’s new capital has been under construction for years, at an estimated cost of more than $50 billion. It is one of a whole variety of megaprojects being built by Sisi’s government at enormous cost, and the Egyptian government is deeply in debt.
The new capital, about 28 miles southeast of Cairo, is designed in part to relieve Cairo’s crumbling infrastructure, and is planned to house more than six million residents. Government administrative headquarters will be moved there. It is already home to the tallest building in Africa (the 77-floor Ionic Tower), to a huge presidential palace, and to dozens of ministry buildings, schools, hospitals, mosques, and churches.
Over-population of the planet has long been a concern for some thinkers and scientists. Since 1804, the global human population has increased from 1 billion to 8 billion. Among the factors causing this are medical advances and improved agricultural productivity. According to the most recent UN projections, the “global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100.”
The good news is that the UN’s projections predict that human population will peak at around 10.4 billion people, before decreasing in line with falling fertility rates worldwide.
On July 10, the UN published a discussion document on the implications for planetary health and sustainability of a global population in excess of 8 billion.
Brought down to basics, humanity’s impact on the earth’s environment is measured by the number of inhabitants, how much each person consumes and the technology used to meet that level of consumption. If average global consumption were on a par with the levels of today’s high-income countries, the planet could not support even its current population. The highly resource-intensive patterns of consumption in developed countries are not sustainable or replicable on a global scale. Population growth amplifies such pressures.
Developing nations such as Egypt and the other states of the African continent are acting wisely in recognizing that unrestricted population growth, if unmatched by an equivalent increase in resources, would deal a body blow to hopes of sustainable development.
In such an environment, initiatives such as Sisi’s Global Congress on Population, Health, and Development make perfect sense.