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Is it plausible that much of Africa and other least developed countries will remain basket cases for the next several decades while the rest of the world modernizes with concomitant improvements in the life prospects of women? Back in 1798, economist Robert Thomas Malthus predicted in his An Essay on the Principle of Population that growing human numbers would eventually outstrip available resources resulting in permanent misery of disease, starvation, and early death for some portion of the population.
I am generally an optimist who celebrates the human creativity that has engendered so much technological and moral progress in the past couple of centuries. So I am confident that new medicines, vastly more productive crops, high quality education delivered via low-cost computerized tablets, cheap decentralized energy, and 3-D printing of tools and goods will spill over from the labs of rich countries and overcome the chaos and poverty that currently afflict the least developed nations. In addition, the continuing global abatement of violent conflict will take hold on in Africa and in other poor countries. And the more that donors from rich countries can promote the education of women in the world’s poorest countries, so much the better.
The outcome this process of modernization will be dramatic improvements in health and longer lives resulting a steep decline in fertility rates. Note that the Bangladeshi total fertility rate fell from 6.6 to 2.9 children in just 20 years between 1980 and 2000. If the current high fertility countries can realize the barest elements of stability and economic freedom attained by Bangladesh with its $700 per capita income, women will live longer and have fewer children. If I am right, the latest U.N. population projections will turn out to be too high and Malthusian fears will recede.