The GiveWell team has apparently been asked this question with such frequency that they commissioned David Roodman to do a study on it for them. Specifically, the question is whether lowering death rates in low-income countries by providing better access to insecticide-treated bednets for malaria prevention could lead to a boom in population growth. The existence of the demographic transition is accepted by everyone here, so the research focused on how people’s fertility choices respond in the short term to having a lower lifetime risk of death for their children. Key point from the GiveWell team’s description of Roodman’s work:
Overall, it appears that life-saving interventions unaccompanied by other improvements, where access to contraception is weak, are likely to lead to some acceleration of population growth. With that said, we wish to note the following:
- No intervention takes place in isolation, and we expect population growth to slow in the future in most low-income areas as poverty falls.
- Acceleration of population growth should not necessarily be associated with overpopulation and its connotations of a net decline in standards of living.
Frankly, I was surprised that someone would ask this question in the first place, since the clear implication is that letting people die of malaria might be a better policy option than facing overpopulation. I’m trying and failing to think of a way that someone might ask this that isn’t undergirded by the belief that the lives of the poor (who face the risk of malaria) are inherently worth less than those of the rich (who don’t). Aside from the morally problematic nature of this statement, it also fails to account for the fact that most low-income countries have a very long way to go before they have consumption rates anything like those of high-income countries. The average American uses 100 times more electricity each year than the average Nigerian. If you as an aid donor are concerned about pressure on global resources from overpopulation, the question you ought to be asking is about your own behavior, not about whether the poor ought to have access to bednets.