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Population growth in Africa is strong, and faster than expected. Easier access to contraceptives – currently the main focus - may curb the birthrate somewhat. However, crucial components driving population growth are being overlooked, says Pauline Rossi, assistant professor of economics. In essence, women decide to have (more) children because of economic considerations.

Pauline Rossi

Trying to set up a face-to-face interview with economist Pauline Rossi can be challenging these days. Rossi has been travelling a lot since the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO awarded her a VENI research grant to ‘explore the fundamental causes of population growth in Africa’ just over a year ago. "The money enables me to accelerate my research and to make it more thorough and more visible", the French native says in an interview at UvA’s Amsterdam School of Economics.

Before she received the €250,000 grant, to be spent over a three-year period, Rossi spent about half of her time on research and the other half teaching. Now, teaching takes up 20%, and the bulk of her time is spent on research and the travelling that goes with it. "I can work more closely with local people from institutions and authorities, as well as with my co-authors in France and the US."

Creating close ties

Knowledge about people, institutions, and their background and motivations is essential for development and family economics expert Rossi.
She learned this in 2005, early on in her college education at French business school HEC, during a four-week consultancy trajectory in Peru aimed at helping farmers. Then 19-year-old Rossi and two fellow students conducted local market research. "We wrote a helpful report, advising them to form a cooperative. Huge savings could be made," she recalls. The advice proved useless. Due to a series of conflicts, the farmers were split into two factions; uniting them within one cooperative was impossible. Rossi smiles: "We had focused on the logistics and the economics, and had forgotten to look at the human factor. It was a very useful experience."
Since that first trip outside Europe many have followed. Rossi graduated from HEC and worked two years in the banking sector in Mexico before opting for an academic career. She obtained a Master's and a PhD in economics at the Paris School of Economics, moving her focus from Latin America to the African continent. She points to historical ties between France and Africa: "For empirical research, one needs good access to data as well as institutions and the people working there. This facilitates the research and helps make sure the findings will be of use." Since 2016, Rossi has been an assistant professor of economics at the UvA.

Erroneous assumptions

Projections of population growth for Africa have been wide of the mark for decades. In 2000, the United Nations estimated the African population to expand to over two billion by 2100. In 2015, the estimate stood at over four billion people.
Based on fertility decline in Asia since the 1960s, projections were for the fertility rate in Africa to decrease to an average of four children per woman today. However, the current fertility rate is still around five, and the population nearly 1.3 billion.
Progress achieved in fighting child mortality has been underestimated, and so have the implications of the common saying that Children are the wealth of poor people, Rossi explains.

Fundamental family functioning

For example, birthrates are affected by polygamy, says Rossi, pointing to the saying. If one wife gets a child, other wives of the same husband are more likely to also get another child, she found doing research in Senegal. "They are competing because they have no access to their husbands’ inheritance other than through their children." With 33% to 50% of women living in polygamous unions in West Africa, and 10% to 33% in the rest of the continent, this ‘reproductive rivalry’ has a significant impact on population growth.
Rossi is also involved in research that shows that policies aimed at giving women their own sources of income and/or more rights reduce the urge to have many children. ‘Once the old-age income situation is solved, women have many fewer children. In Namibia, for example, where social pensions have been introduced, the average fertility rate has gone down from five to 3.5 in two decades.’
In the end, economic considerations weigh heavily upon women’s choice whether or not to have (more) children, Rossi’s research suggests.

Contraceptives not the main problem

Many people assume that easy access to contraceptives is needed in order for the birth rate in Africa to go down, Rossi explains. However, historical data for Europe show this assumption does not hold: fertility rates dropped in the 19th century, without any modern contraceptives being available.
Fertility in Africa is not a problem of access to contraceptives, Rossi continues. "A lot of money is being spent on access - it is not spent on the right problem. Access to contraceptives may lower birthrates somewhat, but the main reason for the high a birthrate is simply the fact that people want to have children."
Despite the cost to women – for example in terms of health and mortality – they decide to have children because of the benefits, she stresses. "If these basics are changed, a proportion of the women is likely to make different decisions."

Opinions versus facts

Besides giving Rossi more leeway for her research, the VENI grant also enables her to promote her findings among a broader audience. Population growth on the African continent is a hot topic, but the misconceptions regarding the underlying causes of fertility are stubborn, Rossi emphasizes. "Everybody has an opinion about it. I sometimes find it hard to explain the difference between opinions, ideological dogma, and facts."
Rossi’s research does not focus on the consequences of population growth and their political implications. "There’s a general concern that excessive population growth will hold back development. Since it’s a concern, I observe it and I’m interested in helping explain the causes of population growth."
Improving healthcare and social security has financial costs, whereas improving women’s rights, for example by giving them more property rights, can entail political costs to the states involved.
Rossi stresses she does positive, not normative research: "It is up to politicians and local leaders to decide how to act based on these findings".