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Controlling Africa's population

TODAY'S photographs from much of sub-Saharan Africa are a welcome contrast to those of a year ago. The world's massive food donations have eased hunger. Rains have come. Fields are greening, and crops, in small quantities, are growing. The long process of agricultural rebuilding has begun. The challenge to Africa and the rest of the world is to follow the success in meeting short-term nutritional needs with similar aid in meeting long-term requirements for self-sufficiency.

Some requirements are often noted. Affluent nations should provide expertise and money for development projects: Many smaller ones will have far more effect than a few massive programs. African nations should root out corruption, improve efficiency, and reorder priorities.

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One of the continent's needs is too little noted: population control. African birthrates are the world's highest. Alone among the world's continents, Africa has seen its per capita food production and income decrease in recent years, largely because population has soared. Almost one-fourth of sub-Saharan Africans now are judged to be insufficiently nourished; yet the continent's current birthrate, if unchecked, would double the population in about 20 years.

More fundamental even than agricultural or government reform is checking this soaring birthrate, a task to be shared by developed nations, international agencies, and the African countries.

The first step is being taken. In several African countries there now exist the beginnings of political recognition of the need to reduce population growth, after years of indifference or denial of a problem. Nigeria is soon expected to announce a plan to control population growth; Zambia is considered likely to follow suit. Several other nations may, as well.

The next step -- a big one -- is actually getting population control programs under way. They have begun in two nations, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Elsewhere they generally have yet to start.

Achieving success in these programs requires leadership, relatively modest funds, and program assistance from developed nations; in recent years the United States has taken a leading role, although it has been backing away during the Reagan administration under pressure from abortion opponents at home.

No population control program in Africa would succeed if imposed by outside nations. International agencies should administer such programs. They would engender far less suspicion, and much more support, than Western, predominantly white, countries.

Finally, strong local motivation is required from top leaders of African governments and also in the countryside. That is the job of host nations.

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Controlling population in Africa, as in any other part of the world, will not be easy. But it can be done, and the stakes are too high not to act.

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