Challenging neoliberal population control

Racist and patriarchal ideas underpin the new ‘family planning’ initiatives promoted by DfID, USAID and the Gates Foundation which deny women in the global South real control over their bodies. The appropriation of the notion of ‘women’s right to choose’ for neoliberal population control must be challenged, argues Kalpana Wilson

Kalpana Wilson
11 July 2013

Exactly a year ago, on the eve of the Olympics, David Cameron was playing host to a different kind of international event in London. On July 11, World Population Day, the British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted the 2012 London Family Planning Summit, where along with USAID, UNFPA and other international organisations, they rolled out a 2.6 billion dollar family planning strategy.  Population growth has been a key concern of the Gates Foundation, and, reflecting the increasingly direct role of corporates in global development interventions, the Foundation  has been instrumental in influencing Britain to take the lead on population issues. So it was no surprise when, ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day, British Development Secretary Justine Greening announced a package of measures by the British Department for International Development (DfID) aimed at ‘women and girls in the poorest countries’. Prominent in these measures was ‘determined UK action on family planning’: on top of existing drives to get 120m more girls and women to use ‘voluntary family planning’ by 2020, further initiatives would include the increased distribution of contraceptive implants.

Today, these policies are described in terms of ‘investing in women’ and giving them reproductive ‘choices’, but as revelations last year about DfID’s funding for recent forcible sterilizations in India  demonstrate, they are in practice less about giving women in the Global South much-needed access to safe contraception which they can control, and more about the continuation in a new guise of  population control programmes in which coercion and violence have been ingrained.

Feminists in the global South  have campaigned for years against forced and coercive sterilizations, unethical testing of new drugs, and the dumping of unsafe injectable and implantable contraceptives, like Depo-Provera - which is currently being coercively administered to Ethiopian women in Israel - Net-En, and Norplant, while in Britain and North America, Black and minority ethnic women have been targeted for these interventions.

While the ideas which inform them can be traced to 19th century colonialism, population control initiatives aimed at the Global South came into their own in the context of the Cold War, the reconfiguring of imperialism after formal colonialism, and the challenge to the existing global distribution of wealth and resources posed by communist movements in the global South. As I argue in my recent book, ‘Race, Racism And Development’, these were from the outset funded by US corporate and finance capital alongside successive US administrations, and they drew upon and sustained racialised representations of people in the Global South as sexually deviant and dangerous, with policy documents littered with explicitly racist references to the ‘bestial’ and primitive’ approach to sex of their ‘targets’. In particular, population control discourse is marked by its reduction of ‘Third World’ women to their reproductive organs, and specifically their wombs, which are pathologised as ‘excessively reproductive’ and requiring intervention.

In fact, the language of twentieth century population control - in which the racialised poor of the global South were portrayed as perpetually threateningly ‘swarming’ ‘seething’ and ‘teeming’ - has not been completely displaced.  Andrew Mitchell, Greening’s predecessor, announced in 2011 that it was ‘time to talk about population’ which had become ‘a dirty word’, while Stephen O’Brien, British Minister for International Development vowed bravely not to ‘shy away from talking… about global population growth and its impacts’. Like earlier versions dating back to Malthus, current approaches to population are based on shifting responsibility for poverty away from capital and onto the poor themselves. Population growth in the global South is being linked to climate change, shifting attention from the role of corporate capital and the fact that, as longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement Betsy Hartmann points out, ‘Industrialized countries, with only 20 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere... Over consumption by the rich has far more to do with global warming than population growth of the poor. The few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have among the lowest carbon emissions per capita on the planet’.

Similarly, population growth in the global South is held responsible for the escalating food crises generated by land grabbing by transnational corporations and foreign governments.  While population control is being promoted on the basis that it is linked to declining maternal mortality and improved child survival rates, it is unlikely that this can be achieved without a change in the dominant economic model which could make substantial investment in health provision possible. But like the earlier versions, today’s population discourse insists that current economic relationships and structures of power don’t need to be changed.  The World Bank and IMF-imposed neoliberal policies in which health provision, along with education, sanitation and other essential public services, has been decimated since the 1980s can remain in place – tellingly, Andrew Mitchell describes population policies as ‘excellent value for money’ citing the example of Tanzania which he claims would ‘need 131,000 fewer teachers by 2035 if fertility declines - saving millions of pounds in the long run’.

The message is that the poor will be taught to become ‘better managers’ of their poverty, while it will be business as usual for the corporates freely plundering sub-Saharan Africa. Central to the strategy of which the return of population control is a part, is the intensification of women’s labour, with responsibility for household survival increasingly feminised, and more and more women incorporated into global value chains dominated by transnational corporations. It is this drive to intensify and incorporate the labour of women in poor households in the global South, rather than feminist concerns about reproductive and sexual rights, which underpins the now ubiquitous slogan of ‘investing in women’.

Cold War population discourse revolved around the ‘threat’ of communism in the Global South represented by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, and ideas of racial hierarchy were deeply embedded in them – military strategist Thomas Schelling famously described Asia as ‘a large part of the world that is poor and colored and potentially hostile’. Today, Cold War demonization of ‘young populations’ and the ‘youth bulge’ theory of security threats developed by the CIA are being redeployed as population growth is being linked to terrorism, embodied in the racialised representations of the ‘angry young men’ it produces and the ‘veiled young women’ who will produce yet more ‘dangerous’ children and used to justify further US-led military intervention.

Current population interventions by organisations like DfID, USAID, UNFPA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have appropriated the concepts of women’s empowerment and agency, but they are still underpinned by ideas about race, gender and sexuality which serve to dehumanize those identified as ‘targets’ for population control. The Gates Foundation has been repeatedly criticized for its close relationship with pharmaceutical giants, and its role in financing drug trials and vaccine programmes which were found to be unethical and unsafe. These include a clinical trial of the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer in India in 2009, falsely claimed to be a ‘post-licensure observational study’, for which 23,000 girls aged 9-15 from impoverished communities were selected and requirements for parental consent were bypassed. The trial was suspended following the deaths of seven adivasi (indigenous) girls aged between 9 and 15. A government enquiry found that the process of obtaining consent amounted to ‘covert inducement and indirect coercion’, and expressed concerns over a ‘hidden agenda’ to push the expensive vaccinations manufactured by Glaxo Smith Kline and Merck Sharp and Dohme into India’s Universal Immunisation Programme. 

DfID’s current initiative involves a joint operation with Merck to promote the long-lasting implant Implanon to ‘14.5 million of the poorest women’ by 2015’. Implanon was discontinued in the UK in 2010 because trained medical personnel were finding it too difficult to insert correctly, and there were fears about its safety. As well as a series of debilitating side-effects, the implant was reported as ‘disappearing’ inside women’s bodies. Merck has introduced a new version Nexplanon, which, although almost identical in other ways, is detectable by X-ray, but have been allowed to continue to sell their existing stocks of Implanon. This then is the drug which is being promoted in DfID and UNFPA programmes in the ‘poorest’ countries, despite these countries’ huge deficit of trained health personnel. In fact, in Ethiopia, one of the target countries, mass insertions of Implanon are part of what is referred to as ‘task shifting’ where hastily trained health extension workers are being made to take on the roles of trained doctors and nurses.

Racist and patriarchal ideas are continuing to underpin policies like those of DfID and the Gates Foundation which deny women in the global South real control over their bodies. The appropriation of the notion of ‘women’s right to choose’ for 21st century neoliberal population control can only be exposed and challenged through a sustained campaign with a transnational feminist perspective. The Freedom Without Fear Platform ,which was set up this January in solidarity with the anti-rape movement in India, and seeks to provide a forum for BME women in Britain to lead discussions on gender violence, sees this campaign as central to its aims.


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