Rwanda birth control – Is Malthus back?

Apr 22nd, 2013 at 13:16 | By | Category: Economy, News analysis

I was just 6 years old when Malthus appeared in Rwanda, a ghost most people felt without really seeing him. In fact, in 1994, Malthus visited Rwanda leaving behind him around a million of deaths and 19 years later, the reasons for his visit are still there. Will he be coming back?

To answer this question, I will first define who Malthus is and what is meant by the so called “Malthusian model”. Secondly, I will demonstrate that what happened in 1994 can recur in Rwanda if no measures are taken to avoid this. Thirdly, I will provide some examples of Rwanda’s attempts to avoid the return of Malthus and last but not least I will make recommendations as to how the government can improve its strategies.

The Malthus model: The Genocide in Rwanda as an example

Malthus was an English economist who lived in the 18th– 19th century. He is the author of a famous and controversial article on the dynamic of population: An Essay on the Principle of the Population. The Malthusian model can be summarized as follows:  the available land limits the population growth vise versa. If the population grows more rapidly than the output, the output per capita reduces. This leads to poverty and a decrease in population growth as a result of limited food supply. As the population decreases, the available land per person increases which raises the output per capita. The better off people were, the faster the population would grow. As the population increases, the available lands decline. Consequently, the population would be so poor that “this poverty would in turn limit population to grow”.

Malthus asserts that this dynamic transition will lead, in the long run, to a level of output per capita characterized by a zero population growth. For him, the decrease of population is done in two ways: the preventive and positive checks.  The former refers to solving the overpopulation problem by a moral restriction such as limiting the number of children. The latter implies that nature can solve the overpopulation through other means such as war, famine, genocide etc.

Although the Malthusian model is mostly used to explain the population transition before and during the time of Malthus, this model can still be applied to understand some of the events that occurred in our current societies. As observed by renowned scholars such as Jared Diamond, the Rwandan genocide can be partially explained by the Malthusian model.

It has been argued that ethnic hatred was the only reason for the drastic events of 1994 in Rwanda. However, the erroneous conclusion made by many people is to see hatred as an exogenous justification to explain the tension between the people of Rwanda whilst there could be other possible driving forces that could have led to what happened in Rwanda. In his book “Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed”, Diomand found an instrumental variable which helps to control for endogeneity of hatred when explaining the genocide in Rwanda: the available land.  Indeed, on the eve of the tragedy, Rwanda was the most densely populated country in the world with an average of 272 people per square mile, one of the highest in Africa[1]. As an average measure, the distribution of the population varied. Therefore, some areas were more populated than others. For instance, there were about 2.040 people per square in Kanama, a district in North West of Rwanda[2]. The overpopulation and the lack of sufficiently arable land, combined with poor governance were, on the eve of the war, a sufficient environment propitious to Malthus’ theory.

In point of fact, jealousy and hatred started to appear between ethnic groups but also among people in the same group. Although the Rwandan government tried to tackle this problem of overpopulation through a preventive check, the positive check dominated. Catherine Andre and Jean-Philippe Platteau[3] assert that before and during the genocide, some people were killed in order to get their arable land. Even if the victims were mainly Tutsis, no ethnic group was spared.

19 years later, Malthus still threatens Rwanda

As discussed earlier, the overpopulation combined with lack of sufficient arable land is an instrumental variable explaining the hatred among ethnic groups. The question that then arises is; is present-day Rwanda protected from a new outbreak of Malthus? I will demonstrate that it is not.

Before the genocide, the government of Rwanda was aware of the overpopulation. Indeed, Rwandan government prior to 1994 used to run campaigns inciting people to use contraceptive methods[4]. However, this policy did not work well.

After the tragedy, birth control was no longer a priority for the government. Because of the killing of thousands of children during the genocide, birth control was a very sensible topic. Efforts made by the former government to reduce the Rwandan population were abandoned years after the genocide. From 1994 up until now, the Rwandan population has increased by almost 60%, rising from 6.6 to 11 million.

The Rwandan population’s density is still one of the highest in the world: 417 people per square km. In principle, this high population density is not problematic. There are other countries such as The Netherlands and Belgium that have a similar population density.  However, with its 11 million people and a growth rate of 2.7% per year, the Rwandan population is expected to double in 25 years. This means that the country will have 834 people per square km[5], a considerable increase compared to 417 per square km today. Rwanda’s population growth is problematic because it cannot be sustained in the medium and long term. For instance, the agricultural sector remains a major sector of employment (90% of the labor forces), and the country lacks natural resources. This surely cannot support the high population density. Moreover, although Rwanda has made remarkable progress economically and significantly improved its human development, inequalities in life expectancy at birth, education and income remain a challenge for the population. When adjusted for inequalities the country’s human development index of 0.434 as achieved in 2012 falls to 0.287, a figure close to where it was in the 80s.[6] In addition, property injustice occurred in the aftermath of the genocide helps to intensify hatred among people. It has been reported by Human Rights that several individuals were falsely charged and convicted of genocide with the objective of depriving them from their properties.[7] Hence, when one compares the land against the overpopulation issue in Rwanda prior and after the 1994 genocide, thinking about Malthus’ return could not be a completely wrong prediction. In case nothing is done to a) curb the demographical growth, b) reduce the poverty and c) restore justice (through a fair distribution of land), the positive check will restore the equilibrium that the Rwandan government would have failed to reestablish by the preventive check.

Failure of some Rwandese preventive checks

The first mistake made by the RPF led government has been to consider that the hatred among ethnic groups has a separate exogenous variable to explain what happened in 1994. A good policy would have been, in my opinion, to seriously tackle the overpopulation problem even if, in that period, birth control was a sensitive issue. However, after realizing that the Rwandan population was growing in an unsustainable way, many actions have been taken.

One of these is sterilization. Whilst my intention here is not to demonstrate whether sterilization is beneficial or not, my critic is rather linked to the way in which such sterilization program has been and continues to be implemented. When the sterilization program was introduced, the government aimed at sterilizing all the poor men. This measure has been extremely unpopular and the program was considered by most Rwandans as immoral. Indeed, forcing sterilization on people based on their income is pure discrimination against the poor and thus, morally inacceptable.

Another additional point that is worth mentioning, though it is not part of the Malthusian model, is the way in which justice has been done after the genocide. This could perhaps be another factor which expands hatred among Rwandans. After the genocide, many Tutsis who had settled in neighboring countries came back to Rwanda. Considering that some of them lacked housing, they started to appropriate themselves the houses and lands of Hutus who had then fled the country after the war. Sometimes, as mentioned above, they would unfairly allege the actual owners of the properties at issue as having participated in committing genocide. These allegations led many Hutus to prison.

Despite such selective yet national commitment, testimonies from victims of the genocide of 1994 heard on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s programme[8] of April 13th 2013, reveal that many have not been compensated for their land confiscated through Rwanda government’s reconstruction programs. Furthermore, the genocide survivors claimed that they have not had justice in regards to their lands that were unfairly taken by people with more influence or given away by the authority in ambiguous processes. In this sense, Rwanda is at a very difficult turning point. On the one hand, restitution of property will require the government to implement policies towards new housing facilities. On the other hand, failing to provide for an effective remedy and thereby restitution, will further nurture hatred among Rwandans.


Malthus still threatens Rwanda. The overpopulation problem has not been solved yet and this can lead to another drama if the Rwandan government does not take the problem seriously.

The Government should, firstly, restore justice by releasing people who were falsely imprisoned in order to avoid nurturing more hatred among Rwandans. The Government should also nationally revise the land distribution. In such distribution, no ethnic group would feel excluded of the society.

Secondly, the government should promote education and development as where there is a higher standard of living, people tend to have fewer children[9]. However, the solution of overpopulation through education takes many years. With an adult literacy rate of 70%, does Rwanda have enough time to wait until all its people are educated in order to reach a sustainable growth rate of population? In the short run, as I have written previously, I am not completely against sterilization. Indeed, if sterilization is the only way to avoid another genocide, it should be used.  However, in this case, the decision of sterilizing someone or not should be based on criteria’s other than the financial situation of the person. As an example, it can be based on the maximum number of children that a household can have.


Cyiza Clément

[1]World Bank

[2] Diamond Jared (2005), “COLLAPSE : HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED”, Penguin Group.

[3] Facultés universitaire Notre-Dame de la Paix

[4] in 1977, introduction of the first family planning. In 1981, the National Population Office (ONAPO) was established to implement family planning services in all Country.

[5] If we make assumption that the population growth rate stays the same overtime, Year of doubling= (ln(2)/0,027).

[6] htttp://; UNDP, « Index of Human Development », 2011

[7] Human Rights Watch and many NGO have reported my cases of unfairly after the genocide until now:

[8] listen from 22 :00 min on wards

[9] Cervellati M., Sunde U., “ The Economics and Demographic Transition, Mortality, and Comparative Development”,  2011

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One Comment to “Rwanda birth control – Is Malthus back?”

  1. Sam Desire says:

    I am not even sure whether or not Rwandan government is just inflating the size of the population to attract foreign aid. The figures presented by Rwandan government about the size of the population might be exaggerated, not accurate


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