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Blaming our failures on population size is escapist

By Charles Kanjama | November 10th 2013

By Charles Kanjama

If you only have a hammer, so the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail. Every crisis appears in need of a hammer. Every point needs to be hammered in, and hammered again through repetition. We often underestimate how pervasive this approach is in real life. For example, why does government keep passing regulations? Because for government officials, their basic hammer is regulation and every human failure seems to be crying out for more regulations.

Why are there so many cases filed in court? Because for many lawyers, every dispute is calling for court-assisted or other tribunal-assisted resolution. For many doctors, every sickness is calling for medicine or surgical intervention. For many philosophers, every problem is at heart a philosophical issue. For journalists, every scandal is calling for exposure and reportage. And so on. Some hammers are clearly more needed than others. Education is the hammer that teachers use against ignorance. Repentance is the hammer pastors use against sin.

Business is the hammer entrepreneurs use against unmet needs. And money, which represents work and hence should measure and not merely store value, is the hammer we all try to use against poverty. And this is okay, because these are ubiquitous needs. The concern today is how a certain segment of government has turned population control into the hammer for all the problems of society. You are poor? Blame rapid population growth. Kenya’s economy is growing slower than our neighbours, Uganda and Ethiopia? Blame our burgeoning population, despite Ethiopia being twice as populous, and Uganda and Ethiopia’s population growing faster than Kenya’s.

Government is having a challenge attaining Vision 2030? Blame the ‘rabbit-like’ fertility of Kenyan women. Infrastructure inadequacies are being felt? Blame our 4.6 children per woman. Kenyans are dying of avoidable causes? Blame our large unruly population. We are unable to feed ourselves? Predict Ehrlich’s population bomb and get done with it. What I find amazing is that we even give these charlatans our attention.

But since they wake up every morning and go to work every day just to plan how to reduce our population, their growing obsession with population control cannot merely be dismissed as a passing whim or fancy. It is the kind of whim that lasts a lifetime, and the kind of fancy that doesn’t pass unless confronted.

Recently, some government bureaucrats, no doubt with assistance from some consultants, have suggested reduction of Kenya’s birth rate from 4.6 to 2.3 children per woman. Mind you, they have already generated policy papers, frameworks, reports and surveys to justify their obsession.  A hundred Julian Simon’s could come to debunk this Malthusian pessimism, but the optimism and science of these Simons would sink into the black hole of Malthusian pessimism without leaving a trace.

Since misery loves company, the despondency over alleged over-population can spread as easily as the medieval Italian plagues described in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, helped on by human folly.

Really, it is government’s responsibility to manage claims of overpopulation and leave us to choose our family sizes. Our growing population in fact constitutes an economic boon that if well harnessed will produce a population dividend that can enable the desired leap forward in development. If government is unable to deliver on its promises and on Vision 2030 targets, let it look for another excuse. Those in government who believe they can’t deliver economic growth with our current population profile should just resign and give an opportunity to those who can.


In 2011 England, there was an intense debate on judicial “super-injunctions”, issued to protect the privacy of certain individuals and limit public discourse. Even as judges and MPs expressed divergent views, there was one point in common: “Parliament’s right to debate whatever it wanted was of the highest constitutional importance, and no injunction – super or otherwise – should interfere with that.” In other words, while the courts can in some cases declare completed Parliamentary acts unconstitutional, they cannot injunct Parliament.

This is known as absolute parliamentary privilege, or freedom of speech and debate in Parliament. In Kenya, it is founded on article 117 of the Constitution. So Parliament’s refusal to heed court summons is like the refusal of a foreign government to subject itself to the court jurisdiction of another state due to diplomatic immunity. It cannot be contempt of court because the law allows this.

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