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Family & Population Policy in Less-Developed Countries

In 1798, Thomas Malthus penned his famous dictum that agricultural productivity increases arithmetically while populations increase geometrically. Ever since that time, scholars have concerned themselves with the relationship between population dynamics and economic development. With the rise of the modern nation-state, interest grew in how governmental family and population policies might affect the health of national economies. At the turn of twenty-first century comes, accelerating economic globalization, the decline of communism, and the growing influence of the United Nations and other international organizations provide an increasingly complex context within which to understand family and population policy in less developed countries.

The designation of countries as ‘‘less developed’’ or ‘‘more developed’’ (or ‘‘developing’’ versus ‘‘developed’’, ‘‘newly industrializing’’ versus ‘‘industrialized’’) relies on a multidimensional construct of development, ranging from the conditions of education and health to agricultural surplus generation, industrialization, and capital accumulation (Staudt 1997). Perhaps the best single measure of development is a country’s real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (Crenshaw et al. 1997). However, while meager per capita productivity is characteristic of less developed countries, these nations fall along a productivity continuum of considerable range. Less developed countries also vary greatly in size, geographic location, and quality of natural resources. A study of population dynamics in seventy-five developing nations included countries as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, and the Philippines (Crenshaw et al. 1997).

Like more developed nations, some of these countries have highly centralized governments; others are weak states with little coordination of productive or distributive activities. All, however, are perceived as promoting some form of family policy. In many of these countries, policies that attempt to regulate the family per se as a social institution are not explicitly articulated. Rather, policies regarding the family often operate indirectly through measures directed toward population control (e.g., family-planning programs and restrictions on internal migration) or economic development (e.g., agrarian reform and importsubstitution policies). In some parts of the developing world (e.g., China, India, the Islamic states), extensive legal and political measures attempt to govern the formation, functioning, and dissolution of families more directly through, for example, laws on inheritance, dowry, divorce, and filiation. These more explicit family policies often bear the traces of traditional religious interests, but they may also reflect attempts to ‘‘modernize’’ countries by weakening traditional patriarchal control over the disposition of property and the labor of family members. Thus, family policy in less developed countries, whether indirect or explicit, is inextricably bound to questions of economic development, including those concerning the relationship between population and resources.

As a result, few social scientists today treat comparative family policy as an arena of inquiry separate or distinct from comparative studies of population or economic development policy. In fact, attempts to define ‘‘family policy’’ as a distinct object of study have been conspicuously absent from the scholarly literature since the late 1970s (for an example of one such attempt, see Kamerman and Kahn 1978). In part, waning efforts to define and examine family policy per se reflect heated debates about whether a uniform definition of the ‘‘family’’ is useful or appropriate. Feminist critiques in particular have challenged uniform definitions of the family as overly monolithic, static, and undifferentiated, claiming that these definitions ignore the diversity of family patterns not only in less developed nations but also in ‘‘modern’’ countries such as the United States (Beneria and Roldan 1987; Collins 1991; Baca Zinn 1990).

These definitional disputes have given rise to different concepts of what the family is. For example, some scholars argue that variations in household and kinship relations exist worldwide; they tend to prefer the term ‘‘household’’ to ‘‘family,’’ defining the former as a residential unit wherein people live in close proximity and organize activities to meet daily needs (Chow and Berheide 1994). Others, however, argue that adopting the household as the unit of analysis, with an attendant focus on how households respond ‘‘strategically’’ to the external economic and political environment, obscures conflicts of interest that arise within households (Bourque and Warren 1987; Wolf 1992). These critics tend to conceptualize the family or household not as a unit or entity but as a site that offers a cultural and moral context for the interaction of personalities, for the production and consumption of goods, and for the reproduction of populations (Acker 1988). This view of the family tends to emphasize how different interests within families are shaped by gender and age—interests that are themselves related to competition and conflict between larger systems of authority and of control over labor (e.g., capitalism, socialism, patriarchy) within national settings.

Athough the study of family policy in less developed nations has largely been overtaken by more fundamental debates about the ‘‘proper’’ unit of analysis, some of these arguments provoke new ways of thinking about why developing nations have an interest in the regulation of families. The question of what constitutes a ‘‘family’’ for the purposes of analyzing policy might be found in answers to the question: What is it that families do, in addition to their contributions to population dynamics and economic development, that captures the interest of governments? That is, why do states have a ‘‘compelling interest’’ in families?

Part of an answer may be found in Cherlin’s (1999) definition of the ‘‘public family,’’ a definition that attempts to locate the contribution of families to the public welfare in their caring for dependent members of the population, such as children, the sick, and the elderly. Adapting Cherlin’s definition to a global context, public families may be defined as one adult, or two or more adults who are related by marriage, kin ties, shared parenthood, or coresidence, who is/are taking care of dependents and the dependents themselves. In nearly every society, most caretaking of dependents is performed within a small web of relations like those defined above. Although this work is largely unpaid, it is of great social value, being necessary for the reproduction of a society from one generation to the next. Hence the state’s interest in how well families manage the care of dependents. But government interest extends beyond merely ensuring the replentishment of a population. As Folbre (1994) argues, the caretaking that goes on within families can result in the production of valuable public goods—most notably through the rearing of children who will grow up to be productive adult members of a society. Thus, governments have an interest in promoting caretaking within families that gives rise to positive collective benefits (productive members of the next generation, including those who will continue to provide caretaking within families).

Policies that provide explicit incentives for family caretaking in the form of tax breaks or government subsidies for day care, parental leave, or child allowances tend to emerge in countries with a highly developed welfare-state appartus, which presumes the existence of large, stable (if not expanding) public revenues. That is, these policies tend to presume an already-high level of economic development that ensures stable public revenues. The European social democracies—in particular, Sweden—are examples in this regard (Acker 1994). However, some developing countries, such as China, have instituted policies that support caretaking in the form of parenting education programs, child allowances, maternity leave, and planning for social security for the aged (Chow and Chen 1994). The difference in the Chinese case, as in that of other less developed nations, is that these policies are tethered to population policies and goals. The Chinese government, for example, makes eligibility for forms of caretaking support contingent on compliance with its onechild policy, levying penalties in the form of fines, wage deductions, possible job demotion, and forfeiture of other social benefits on parents who have a second child (Chow and Chen 1994). Thus, caretaking policies in the developing world are often put into place as a mechanism for achieving family planning or development goals that aim, over the long term, to ensure national prosperity; they less often derive from such prosperity to begin with, as in the West. The extent to which developing countries manage to implement such ‘‘conditional’’ caretaking policies depends on the strength of the state—in particular, on whether this strength relies on autocratic forms of rule (e.g., China). In developing countries with weaker governments or less autocratic systems of power, support for caretaking more often arises from the adoption of programs or initiatives that are funded by international organizations committed to population control and/or globally organized economic growth. These programs often take the form of children’s health initiatives, such as immunization and nutritional-support projects sponsored by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

A second aspect of governmental interest in the family among less developed countries concerns the role of family and kin networks as the matrix for traditional authority relations. In many emerging nation-states, political power remains locally controlled by clans or confederations of kin that resist attempts by central governments to consolidate power. Loyalties to religious or ethnically based claims to authority also tend to be coupled closely with loyalties to family and larger kin groups. Thus, the emergence of explicit family policies in less developed countries may reflect attempts on the part of central governments to wrest political control from clans or lineages (such as in sub-Saharan Africa; see Migdal 1988). In some parts of the developing world, changes in family law and policy are a function of competition between bureaucratic state interests and traditional religious claims to authority. For example, in the mid-1950s the government of Tunisia outlawed ‘‘repudiation,’’ or the husband’s Quranic, unilateral prerogative to terminate a marriage at will without judicial involvement. Prior to this time, family matters had been regulated by traditional Islamic doctrine, with allegiance to Islamic law being regionally based and deeply rooted in kin loyalties (Charrad 1994). Changes in the Tunisian civil code to abolish repudiation and make judicial intervention mandatory for divorce had the effect of unifying and strengthening the judicial system by creating a national network of courts. In terms of actual implementation of the new code, judges found themselves shifting between the values of traditional Islamic doctrine and the principles of reform. Nonetheless, the new policy has had a transformative effect on the structure of Tunisian rule, strenthening and consolidating the power of civil law. The case of the Philippines offers another example of how government policy toward families reflects competition between religious and more secular authority claims; the 1986 Philippine constitutional statement about the family reflects an uneasy compromise between Roman Catholic groups and more liberal elements of Filipino society (‘‘Proceedings of the Constitutional Commission’’ 1986).

In short, despite widespread disagreement in the literature over definitions of ‘‘family’’ and the scope of ‘‘family policy,’’ government policies in less developed nations reveal interests in the caretaking of dependents and in the consolidation and centralization of authority that might be usefully thought of as targeting ‘‘the family.’’ In contrast to the field of family policy, the terrain of population policy is much more clearly defined, though no less marked by controversy. Population policies differ from family policies because the former are designed to meet specific demographic goals. The most common population policies found in less developed countries are those that attempt to ameliorate population growth by reducing birthrates, for example, through programs in familyplanning education and in the distribution of contraceptives (International Institute for Sustainable Development 1994). Other population policies attempt to control migration flows from, for example, rural to urban economic sectors in an attempt to control the mobility of labor and patterns of economic development. These migration policies are especially prevalent in sub-Saharan African countries, where increasing urbanization and the influx of wartime refugees from neighboring areas have placed severe pressures on cities and depleted the supply of labor for rural agriculture. For example, in the 1980s Zambia took steps to curb rural-to-urban migration and promote the resettlement of rural areas through such measures as removing subsidies for commodities in urban areas, a ‘‘back to the land’’ policy, and youth training programs in agriculture and farm management, carpentry, and other rural community-building skills (Mijere and Chilivumbo 1994).

Several demographic problems are a source of shared concern among less developed nations. Concern over rapid population growth has motivated a variety of family-oriented laws and programs, including raising the minimum legal age for marriage in order to shorten the reproductive span during which women are exposed to regular sexual activity (Piepmeirer and Hellyer 1977), providing free family-planning services, and, as in China, offering incentives and disincentives for childbearing that involve the provision or withholding of housing, paid maternity leave, and medical or educational services (Greenhalgh 1990; Quah 1990).

Another demographic problem faced by many less developed countries is the lengthening of childhood dependency through adolescence and the concomitant rise of an independent youth culture brought about by the earlier onset of puberty and rising ages at marriage (United Nations 1989). A number of governments in Asia have established sex education or ‘‘family life education’’ policies and programs that target burgeoning adolescent populations, partly as a way of maintaining government family-planning programs in the face of declining levels of marital fertility (Xenos 1990). Other governments have increasingly differentiated youth from adults in their constitutions (Boli-Bennett and Meyer 1978), and programs that explicitly target adolescents and youth are an increasingly important element of social policy in less developed nations.

Another emerging demographic problem affecting many less developed countries is the growth f the aged population, a situation that typically arises whenever birthrates fall. While less developed nations may have a clear and compelling interest in the production of children as ‘‘public goods,’’ the question of how to care for a growing population of the aged amid declining birthrates and the emergence of smaller families raises thorny issues. In some countries, policies are being considered to keep this burden within families rather than making it a government responsibility, reflecting the state’s reluctance to absorb the costs of dependency among those who are no longer members of the productive work force.

All three of the above concerns—about rapid population growth, an expanding youth culture, and care for the aged—mark the recent history of policy in China. The Chinese one-child policy was adopted in 1979 to ameliorate population pressure on China’s food supply and to reduce state expenditures. Later, it developed into a policy promoting modernization and economic development, with the Chinese government offering several rationales for planned fertility: It would foster better health care for children and mothers, establish better social conditions for the rearing of future generations, increase work efficiency and political awareness, and promote equality of the sexes (Huang 1982). The government created a number of assistance programs, such as fertility education, free birth control and abortion, and planning for social security for the aged; it also offered numerous economic incentives for compliance, such as extra materinity leave, housing or farmland, free doctor visits, day care, and wage bonuses.

Overall, these provisions appear to have relieved China’s population crisis: As of 1994, population growth rates were the lowest since 1949, and the percentages of women marrying at an early age and bearing more than one child have declined (Beijing Review 1995). But because enforecement of the one-child policy is left to local jurisdictions, implementation and outcomes vary by location. The policy appears to have gained greater acceptance in the wealthier, more urban provinces, where the incentives are more abundant. Even in these areas, however, the policy has had an important, unanticipated consequence: The preciousness of the single child has led parents, especially mothers, to spend more time on child care and housework than parents in multiple-child households. Instead of promoting women’s greater participation in employment, the policy has led to a
reassertion of women’s traditional roles as homemakers and nurturers. The policy’s weakening of the traditional Chinese system of old-age dependence on adult children (primarily sons) was more readily anticipated, but an alternative system of old-age support has yet to emerge.

As the aims (though not the consequences) of the Chinese policy illustrate, another area of concern involves global social movements, including those supporting equal rights for women and other oppressed groups (Bandarage 1997; Chow and Berheide 1994; Staudt 1997). A second global trend is that of environmentalism (McMichael 1996). A variety of ‘‘green’’ movements have emerged that question the assumptions behind unrestricted economic growth and have redefined the debate about development in Third World countries, focusing on the need for agricultural sustainability, the protection of ecologically vulnerable habitats (particularly in the tropical zones), and the maintenance of biodiversity. Concerns about the environmental degradation sometimes wrought by development projects are often coupled with concerns about the rights and well-being of oppressed groups—particularly in Africa, where mining and rural development policies have differentially affected female-headed households and, as in the case of South Africa, magnified racial inequalities (Schonfield 1994).

Emerging global viewpoints and the sanction given to them by international organizations represent another trend that is likely to influence future policy concerning families in developing countries. In the 1990s alone, various arms of the United Nations offered explicit recommendations on a range of policies, including those on education, family health, women’s labor-force participation, and the family (International Institute for Sustainable Development 1994, 1995). Often these recommendations arose from the participation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in planning and development activities. Such recommendations have been closely tied to the system of international aid that includes donors such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. However, the growing visibility of NGOs at U.N. conferences such as the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women in part reflects the NGOs’ lack of efficacy at the national level: These conferences provide forums for NGOs that have encountered resistance from national governments or have failed to mobilize support from the local populace (Baden and Goetz 1997).

Local and national resistance to NGO or multilaterial initiatives regarding families sometimes stems from the belief that these initiatives have been ‘‘co-opted’’ by large international aid agencies that neglect the needs of local populations and their families (Mukherjee 1993). For example, donor-influences policies in Malawi have disadvantaged female-headed households, favoring households headed by men, even though the traditional culture recognizes the mother–child pair as the most important family unit (Rodgers 1980; Spring 1986). Donor-influenced structural adjustment policies (SAPs) have become another source of conflict about policy. In response to recent economic stagnation and the Third World debt crisis, these adjustments have involved reducing levels of government employment, ‘‘floating’’ national currencies, and cutting tariffs and subsidies, while encouraging export-driven economic growth through labor-intensive manufacturing. In many countries, women have responded by increasing their participation in home-based industries, often to provide themselves with security should a spouse lose a formal-sector or government job as a result of structural adjustment (Osirim 1994).

The case of Zimbabwe provides an example of how these SAPs can come into conflict with the aims of government policies concerning families. In the early 1980s, Zimbabwe passed laws that ensured women’s claims to property in the event of divorce and allowed married women to obtain loans and property in their own names to establish businesses. These laws, supplemented by government loan and training programs to assist women entrepreneurs, were designed to encourage the greater participation of women in national development and to advance their civil rights. However, the advent of Zimbabwe’s SAP in 1990 signaled a shift in priorities toward ‘‘shrinking the state.’’ The resulting increases in transportation, wholesale, and licensing costs for businesses were particularly hard on women entrepreneurs, some of whom had become the sole wage earners of their families after their husbands had lost a government job (Osirim 1994).

The increasing involvement of transnational social movements, international donor agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in policy development raises an important issue: the strain in many less developed countries between a Western
vision of the family that may be supported by the government, NGOs, or international aid agencies, and the traditional family forms supported at the local, grassroots level. In many less developed countries, the government vision of the family may result from the colonial experience, the exposure of elites to Western society, or the perception that a more Westernized family system fits better with other governmental goals, such as economic development or undermining the traditional authority of kin, religious, or ethnic groups. Wherever political struggle focuses on family and population policies, however, the underlying issue often at stake—to which debates in the literature attest—is competition between alternative definitions of the family.

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