Inside the World Bank's Population Policy

Taken from Super Imperialism, 2nd Edition, p213 (1972)

For instance, the World Bank is essentially an American instrument, and the United States is a food-surplus nation threatened with loss of foreign markets for farm products as modernization of European agriculture proceeds. For the World Bank to finance such institutional reforms in developing nations as would lead them toward self-sufficiency on food account would run counter to American interests. U.S. farm surpluses would become unmanageable as the overseas market for U.S. farm products dwindled. Hence, the World Bank prefers perpetuation of world poverty to the development of adequate overseas capacity to feed the peoples of developing countries.

There is a yet more subtle point to be considered. Mineral resources represent diminishing assets. It is in the interest of developing peoples to conserve such assets for their own ultimate use in manufacturing industries, as these develop within the borders of nations rich in raw materials but backward in general development. In the short run such domestic use of mineral resources is not possible because of inadequate industrial capital and consumer markets place. The specter is thus raised that in the long run these countries will find themselves depleted of resources as World Bank programs accelerate the exploitation of their mineral deposits for use by other nations.

The long-term prospect is thus for these countries to be unable to earn foreign exchange on export account sufficient to finance their required food imports. The World Bank has foreseen this. Its proposals for population limitation in these countries is a cold-blooded attempt to extort from them their mineral resources, without assuming responsibility for the sustenance of these peoples once the industrialized West has stripped them of their fuel and mineral deposits.

Consider the alternative, that World Bank loans and technical assistance foster agricultural self-sufficiency among these peoples. Assume substantial success in this endeavor in, say, a decade. Thereafter, exportation of fuels and minerals would become a matter of choice by these peoples, not a necessity. Such export might continue at current levels; it might increase, or it might diminish. The decision to conserve or to dissipate exhaustible resources would be autonomous, a matter of choice by these peoples and their governments, not something imposed upon them from outside. The decision about desirable levels of population also would be a local matter, not something demanded among the terms on which capital resources are obtained from foreign suppliers. The peoples now dependent would escape that trap. This is not intended or desired either by the World Bank or by the government of the United States and its client regimes.

It is only a seeming paradox that the World Bank simultaneously fosters the development of resources in impoverished countries while demanding reduction of their population’s rate of increase. What seems to be planned by the West is a reduction in the rate of population growth in these countries sufficient to permit the continued dissipation of their irreplaceable resources while postponing indefinitely their total immiserization. In the estimation of the World Bank, the ideal eventual population for these countries is number of people that can be sustained from their domestic agriculture above the basic poverty level, once the West has taken away the last of their recoverable minerals. The ideal short-run population is the number needed to operate the enterprises whose intent is precisely to exhaust the resources of these countries and, meanwhile, can be sustained by imported foodstuffs paid for by the minerals irretrievably lost by exportation.

The issue therefore is not between a higher rate of growth in population than in resources. It is that populations in impoverished and politically backward countries today, whatever the rate of development of their mineral resources, exceed the number of people that eventually can be fed once these minerals have been exhausted. The logic of the situation, dictated by the callousness of the West, is that populations in these countries must decline in symmetry with the approaching – no matter how gradual – exhaustion of their minerals.

Whether the United States and the World Bank have been led to this objective by their intention to preserve the obsolete and oppressive militaristic class institutions in developing nations, or whether they have been led to the preservation of these institutions in order that the mineral resources of these countries can continue to be stripped from them, may be a matter for conjecture. But the facts remain, whatever the dominant motives at work. Excessive industrialization in the United States, coupled with increasingly wasteful uses of resources on armaments and on personal luxuries that are essentially trivial in terms of human well-being, makes essential the U.S. exploitation of the developing countries, their resources and peoples. The United States is in deficit on raw-materials account, but is unwilling to limit its industrial expansion correspondingly. It is in surplus on farm products account, but is unwilling to limit its agriculture accordingly. The peoples of developing countries therefore are to be turned into the instrument through which the otherwise untenable U.S. economic process is perpetuated.

The customary pro-and-con arguments regarding birth control in these countries are a blind to the realities of the situation. Reduction of population growth might well prove desirable, but not for the reasons advanced by the World Bank and the United States to the impoverished countries. Balanced economic development, with ample sustenance from thriving agriculture, is the prerequisite not only for healthy evolution of these countries but also for postulation of what size of population is desirable for them. It bears repeating that beyond some point above the poverty level, population growth rates tend to diminish as per capita real incomes rise. To assume that this is something peculiar to Western peoples is absurd.

The anti-Malthusian argument, that beyond a point resources tend to increase more rapidly than population, is the universal experience of every developed country. The Malthus doctrine holds true only in conditions where per capita food resources are so low as to leave no surplus of human energy to devote to pursuits above the mere gathering and cultivation of crops. Malthusian advocacy by the World Bank is thus a pronouncement that the Bank intends to leave the economies of impoverished countries in the eventual condition of zero surplus of human energy.

Espousal of Malthusian doctrines, at first in U.S. foreign aid programs and soon afterward by the World Bank, is not surprising. It is in keeping with the evolving purpose of U.S.-centered aid programs. The motive for urging and even demanding population control as the remedy for malnutrition of average citizens in politically backward countries rests on the same grounds as those of Malthus in the time of England’s Poor Law debates: deliberate social retardation of the many to serve the vested interests of the few. In today’s case the few tend to be foreigners and foreign commercial and financial interests, including the U.S. economy’s own minerals-import and food-export requirements. Foreign populations are to supply raw materials and exchange them for U.S. food exports, not grow their own food and consume their fuels and minerals themselves or work them into manufactured goods to compete with U.S. producers.

Beyond this narrow economic interest is the more ancient specter that a large increase in world population may bring into question the balance of international military and political power. Centuries ago, mercantilist theorizing had viewed population growth largely as a military input. A similar view remains today. “Nothing is more menacing to world security,” testified Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to the Senate in its 1945 hearings on the World Bank, “than to have the less developed countries, comprising more than half the population of the world, ranged in economic battle against the less populous but industrially more advanced nations of the west.”1 It thus was historically logical that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara should become President of the World Bank upon leaving his position as architect of America’’ war in Southeast Asia.

Jose de Castro, a Brazilian sociologist, demographer, and former president of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), published remarks in SLASC, the monthly organ of the Latin American Christian Workers Confederation, praising the encyclical Human Life as the most progressive the Church had yet published: “The United States imposes birth control, not to help the poor countries – no one believes any more in its ‘disinterested’ aid programs – but because that is its strategic defense policy. We must realize that the pill is North America’s best guarantee of continuing a dominant minority. . . . If ever the Third World achieves normal development, Washington’s ‘Roman Empire’ will disappear.”2

This interpretation poses the problem of political morality for liberals in the developed nations. Genuinely concerned over poverty in their own and other lands, they have seized upon regulation of population size as an immediate and automatic solution to the prevalence of malnutrition. They fail to perceive that among the many exploitations in this imperfect world is the exploitation of their very morality, that which in their fiber compels them on the course of liberalism.

The easy kind of liberalism, with its hope for ready-to-hand technocratic solutions to social problems, has led them to support the major way in which liberal institutions among backward peoples can be prevented from evolving. Their support for higher living standards for all has been exploited into de facto support of the oppressive and militarist regimes in backward countries. That indeed has become the purpose of the Malthusianism promoted by the World Bank and the government of the United States. American liberals have been its unwitting allies, and thereby the allies of the world’s most reactionary regimes.