/ 6 July 2017

Overpopulation is not Lesotho’s biggest problem

Lesotho's capital Maseru.
Lesotho's capital Maseru.


The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho recently held its third general election in the last five years. Despite the joy in the capital, Maseru, at the election of Tom Thabane as Prime Minister, the election is not likely to solve any of the country’s deeper political, economic, or social problems. The problems that Thabane has inherited arise from a long history of incursions by outsiders – first colonisers, and then aid workers – who have too often made assumptions about the lives, poverty, and health of Lesotho’s citizens, the Basotho.

In his June 18 New York Times piece, “Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking”, Eugene Linden turns to Lesotho to ask a provocative question that scholars have been asking for years. Why is it that five decades of development projects in Lesotho have failed to produce meaningful gains? This is a focal point of our own research, and one that researchers of development in general, and Lesotho in particular, have answered in a variety of ways. It is also a pressing question: Lesotho has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, one of the lowest life expectancies, and over half of its two million people get by on less that $1.90 a day. Since independence, development aid and other foreign assistance have played an outsized role in political life; even today, fully one third of Lesotho’s central government expenses are funded through development assistance.

Our research illustrates that development fails to achieve its objectives for a variety of reasons, stretching from 19th and 20th century colonialism to aid focused more on Cold War geopolitics during the apartheid period, and “one size fits all” interventions today. This is a view we share with most scholars of development. In contrast to the academic consensus, we have been troubled to read a variety of recent newspaper and magazine articles, Linden’s among them, that rely on the largely outdated and overly simplistic ideas of “overpopulation” to make the case that the Basotho people are the primary cause of their country’s ongoing poverty. The narrative of overpopulation holds Lesotho’s growing population culpable for food insecurity, susceptibility to climate variation, and declining agricultural productivity throughout the country. This argument has been heightened by concerns about the impacts of climate change in poor countries and mass refugee movements out of a number of African countries.

These arguments rely on two common ways of thinking about Lesotho, and about poor African countries in general, that have proven to be dangerous traps for development and aid planners. The first is an assumption that the problems facing Lesotho originate entirely within its borders, when in fact external pressures, colonialism, and the outsized influence of neighboring South Africa that have so often posed a threat to the survival and wellbeing of Lesotho’s citizens. The second is the assumption that issues of development, population, and aid operate separately from domestic politics. Contestations for power by political elites have a much more detrimental impact on the poor than the size of the population.

During its history, Lesotho has served as both a food production hub and a labor reserve for South Africa. The pervasive soil erosion throughout Lesotho was caused largely by colonial pressure on the country to feed South Africa’s mining sector. This happened alongside a series of 19th century wars in which Lesotho lost the majority of its arable land to what is now the Free State province of South Africa. Lesotho is not “trapped in the past,” as some argue, but a history of outside exploitation helps explain some of today’s structural poverty.

As much of our own research documents, development and global health projects in Lesotho have repeatedly been carried out with little attention to domestic politics. By assuming that initiatives such as reproductive health services are apolitical, foreign experts have overlooked both the very real political ramifications of these initiatives and the important political contexts in which they are carried out. This means that programs are often run despite objections from local individuals and communities, which has contributed to frequent periods of deep political fissure and unrest, including the three changes of government in the past five years.

Development projects in Lesotho and beyond have too often failed to alleviate poverty. They have also left the national government even more indebted, and local communities stuck with costly, inoperable machinery and local debts of their own. Development and health projects have often become fodder for political battles and have propped up regimes that were not particularly democratic. No wonder that Basotho, among many other recipients of “development” in Africa and beyond, remain skeptical about outside experts coming in with “solutions.” They have long had negative experiences with such efforts.

Unfettered population growth is not Lesotho’s primary problem, but it is certainly one on which Lesotho’s citizens should be able to weigh in. While contraceptive coverage in the country expanded as the fertility rate fell over the past few decades, Lesotho’s rampant HIV epidemic speaks to its continued need for access to responsive, thoughtful, and accessible reproductive health services. Unfortunately, with abortion all but prohibited in Lesotho, one of the most common causes of hospitalisation for women of reproductive age is botched or incomplete abortions. This phenomenon underscores a widely overlooked truth for Lesotho’s women: they do want to have fewer children but lack safe and healthy means to do so.

Despite the limited explanatory value of overpopulation, we share an important conclusion with advocates of that view. Continued global funding for reproductive health is vital. Threats to this funding from our own Trump administration are dangerous and would present grave problems for Lesotho and the rest of the world. But the effectiveness of reproductive health and other development projects will continue to be undermined by mistaken assumptions about where Lesotho’s problems originate. Arguments predicated on overpopulation blame Basotho only for causing and failing to solve their own problems, and look to the Trump administration for solutions. We believe that it is vital that the causes of development “failures,” in Lesotho and beyond, be viewed in a broader context, and that the citizens of sovereign countries like Lesotho be empowered to have a prominent voice in finding meaningful solutions.

Charles Fogelman, PhD; Lecturer at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nora Kenworthy, PhD; Assistant Professor at University of Washington-Bothell

John Aerni-Flessner, Assistant Professor, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Michigan State University