• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Debunking economic myths: Overpopulation doesn’t necessarily lead to underdevelopment!


India and China lead the chart with 1.43 and 1.42 billion people, respectively, followed by the United States with 0.339 billion. Indonesia, Pakistan, and Nigeria complete the list, with populations ranging from 0.223 to 0.277 billion, showcasing global demographic diversity and distribution.

In developmental economics, there has been a concern with population growth, which evokes much controversy and concern, as does the concept of overpopulation. Conventional wisdom often portrays overpopulation as a harbinger of underdevelopment, invoking images of strained resources, environmental degradation, and economic stagnation.

However, upon closer examination, this narrative reveals itself to be a simplistic myth rather than an accurate reflection of reality.

Q: “One of the primary flaws in the overpopulation-underdevelopment narrative lies in its failure to account for the complexities of economic dynamics and human ingenuity.”

The notion that overpopulation inevitably leads to underdevelopment is deeply ingrained in popular consciousness. It stems from the Malthusian theory proposed by Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century, which posited that population growth outstrips the capacity of resources to sustain it, resulting in poverty, famine, and societal collapse.

While Malthus’s theory gained traction during his time and continues to influence public discourse today, empirical evidence and modern economic theory challenge its validity.

One of the primary flaws in the overpopulation-underdevelopment narrative lies in its failure to account for the complexities of economic dynamics and human ingenuity. Contrary to Malthusian predictions, history has shown that increases in population can coincide with periods of economic growth and prosperity.

In the latest update on global population in 2023, World Bank data uncovered an extraordinary trend: India and China, collectively hosting over 2.8 billion individuals, account for a staggering 35.60 percent of the world’s population, which stood at over 7.95 billion. What’s even more remarkable is that these two populous nations were at the forefront of significant economic development.

This revelation challenges the conventional wisdom that population size alone dictates a nation’s level of development.

India, having surpassed China to become the world’s most populous nation with over 1.43 billion people, stands as a testament to this paradigm shift. Leveraging its vast workforce as a demographic dividend, India has propelled itself forward as an economic powerhouse in recent decades.

This data highlights a critical insight: population size is not a limiting factor in a nation’s development trajectory. Instead, it is how countries harness their human capital and resources that determines their economic prosperity.

India’s ascent to the top spot in population size serves as a compelling example of the potential for growth and innovation inherent in populous nations.

The country has become a global hub for information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) services, employing millions of skilled workers.

India’s vast labour pool has also fueled growth in manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, and other sectors. Moreover, the country’s growing middle class presents a significant consumer market, attracting both domestic and foreign investment.

According to World Bank data, India boasts $3.41 trillion as its gross domestic product (GDP), demonstrating how the country has been able to use its population to its advantage.

China, now the second-most populated country in the world with a population exceeding 1.4 billion, has utilised its workforce to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.

The biggest economy out of Asia not only has a large population, it doubles as the second strongest economy after the US with $17.9 trillion as its GDP.

The country’s labour-intensive industries have propelled its economic growth, with sectors like electronics, textiles, and machinery driving exports and foreign investment. Additionally, China’s large domestic market has fueled consumer spending, contributing to its economic expansion.

Moreover, China’s emphasis on education and skill development has resulted in a highly skilled workforce, further boosting its competitiveness on the global stage.

The United States has proven itself to be the dominant economy in the world, having a GDP over five times bigger than India’s.

The US boasts a whopping $25.4 trillion as the country’s economic output, according to the World Bank.

With a population of over 330 million people, the US has harnessed its diverse and skilled workforce to drive innovation and economic growth.

The country’s emphasis on research and development (R&D) has led to breakthroughs in technology, healthcare, and other sectors, driving productivity and competitiveness.

Moreover, the entrepreneurial spirit in the US has resulted in the creation of numerous startups and large corporations, further stimulating economic activity.


Additionally, immigration has played a crucial role in supplying talent and labour, contributing to the country’s economic dynamism.

However, of the top ten most populous nations, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have a relatively lower national income, affirming the need for these countries to focus on wealth creation through improved productivity and value creation.

Nigeria, now the fourth-largest economy in Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund, has about 218 million people as its population. But the country’s economic output pales, with a staggering $472.6 billion.

The country has recently witnessed an upheaval in its economy, from low foreign direct investment to a decrease in oil remittances and various reforms by the government in power that have seen the former largest economy contend with skyrocketing prices, exchange rate fluctuations, and spiralling inflation.

Analysts who spoke to BusinessDay hold that Nigeria has failed to invest in human capital, which serves as the major drive for development and economic stability.

“No country develops with a perpetually low human capital. If you don’t invest in your citizens through quality education and access to technology, there won’t be productivity,” a leading economist and university lecturer said.

“China and the US have constantly been at the top because they understand the importance of strengthening their workforce by investing in them. If they had left their people with no skills to spur growth, they would have remained like us (Nigeria),” Michael Anagun, a lecturer of economics, said.

Pakistan is the fifth-most populous country in the world, followed by Nigeria. It has about 235 million people living in its territory. But the country has equally been faced with a series of challenges, thereby hurting the growth of the country’s economy.

The country is plagued with deep-rooted structural challenges, including weak institutions, political instability, and inadequate infrastructure. These issues have hindered the country’s ability to attract investment and foster sustainable growth. No wonder it’s a staggering $374.7 billion in GDP.

Beyond weak institutions, the country is faced with persistent macroeconomic imbalances, such as high fiscal deficits, inflation, and external debt, which have put strain on the economy. Weak fiscal management and a reliance on borrowing to finance expenditures have exacerbated these imbalances.

There have also been issues of security concern, including terrorism and regional instability, which have adversely affected investor confidence and economic activity. These challenges have deterred both domestic and foreign investment, particularly in sectors like tourism and manufacturing.

“Pakistan’s economy has been growing slowly over the past two decades. Annual per capita growth has averaged only 2 percent,” the World Bank said.

Moreover, the belief that overpopulation strains resources overlooks the role of technological innovation and resource management in addressing scarcity. Throughout history, humanity has continually found ways to increase agricultural productivity, harness renewable energy sources, and develop more efficient technologies to meet growing demand.

The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, for example, saw the adoption of high-yield crop varieties and modern agricultural techniques that dramatically increased food production, debunking predictions of widespread famine due to overpopulation.

Furthermore, the relationship between population growth and economic development is not linear but rather shaped by a multitude of factors, including governance, education, healthcare, and institutional quality.

Countries with effective governance structures, robust education systems, and accessible healthcare tend to experience demographic transitions where declining fertility rates accompany improvements in living standards, as seen in the likes of India, China, the United States, and even Indonesia. This phenomenon, observed in many developed nations, illustrates that sustainable population growth is achievable within the framework of socioeconomic development.

Critics of the overpopulation narrative also point out its tendency to scapegoat vulnerable populations, particularly in the Global South, while ignoring underlying structural issues such as the unequal distribution of resources and economic exploitation.

Blaming overpopulation for underdevelopment absolves governments and institutions of responsibility for addressing systemic inequalities and promoting inclusive growth strategies.

In light of these insights, it becomes clear that overpopulation alone is not a determining factor in economic development or underdevelopment. Instead, it is the interaction of population dynamics with social, economic, and environmental factors that shapes the trajectory of nations.

By dispelling the myth of overpopulation as a driver of underdevelopment, we can foster more nuanced discussions and policies that address the root causes of poverty and inequality while promoting sustainable development for all.

Thus, the belief that overpopulation inevitably leads to underdevelopment is a simplistic myth that fails to account for the complexities of economic and social dynamics. While population growth presents challenges, it also offers opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and human progress.

By reframing the discourse on overpopulation and development, we can move towards more inclusive and effective approaches to addressing global challenges and building a prosperous future for generations to come.

Oluwatobi Ojabello, senior economic analyst at BusinessDay, holds a BSc and an MSc in Economics as well as a PhD (in view) in Economics (Covenant, Ota).

Wasiu Alli is a business and finance journalist at BusinessDay who writes about the economy, business trends, and politics. He holds a BA. Ed. and M. Ed. in English Language and Education.