Earlier this month, Minister of Education Ronald Jones made news headlines, as he usually does, when he reiterated a controversial concern he first raised in 2014 – that Barbadians are not having enough babies.
As he delivered the results of this year’s Barbados Secondary Schools’ Entrance Exam, Mr. Jones bemoaned a more than eight per cent decline in the number of students sitting the annual test.
According to him, the drop was not merely a 2017 problem, but a growing worry for the past five years.
“If you have been following what has been happening, there’s been a declining birth rate in Barbados and this is being reflected in the number of students at age 11 who have been writing the exam,” he said.
Weeks later, he again took up the issue as he addressed the 63rd anniversary service of the Barbados Family Planning Association, but took it a step further, attributing the problem to the selfishness of some Barbadians.
Sure enough, he got a tongue lashing from the length and breadth of the island, and justly so, for needlessly diagnosing the cause of the issue.
But after all the brouhaha, is Minister Jones entirely wrong?
Perhaps it’s bad timing. Coming on the heels of the Government’s austerity measures outlined in the budget in an already depressed environment, who wants to think about more babies?
For others it may be the messenger – Mr. Jones is known for putting his foot in his mouth on occasion – but, still, the message should not be lost.
Whether we want to admit it or not, there has been a marked decline in the country’s birth rate.
Head of Paediatrics at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Dr Clyde Cave confirmed earlier this month that Barbados’ birth rate over the past five to six years has declined from an average of 300 to 250 per month.
Dr. Cave said that in 2007, the number of births recorded and reviewed by the QEH was 3,258. He noted a marginal rise in 2008 when there were 3,279 babies. But since then, there has been a steady decline, with only 2,596 babies born in 2015.
Why does this matter? Because there are future implications for our economy and future development, and on these counts Mr. Jones has a valid point.
As 19th century social thinker John Ruskin put it: “There is no wealth but life…That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”
Barbados is staring at a population crisis in years to come.
If, according to Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett, 20.4 per cent of our population will be over the age of 60 by 2025, we’re headed for trouble.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s future workers, taxpayers and the rest.
Youth help to drive a productive economy. An aging, slow-growing population translates into a slow-growing economy and Barbadians by now know all too well the pinch of a stagnant economy – never mind that low births are not the cause for the present economic crisis. Low population growth is a problem that both developed and developing countries grapple with and there are plenty examples.
Britain and France have provided more incentives to encourage couples to have babies. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin resorted to drastic measures, including setting up special sex tents and paying mothers who had more than one child as much as $11,000.
We certainly do not need to get carried away, but at least we need to talk about it.
A good start is finding out why women are not having children.
To suggest the decision to not have a child is because of “selfishness” is to trivialize an important issue.
Certainly, our economic situation is not any encouragement to have children, and then there are other issues like relationships. Are our families thriving? Are our social system, infrastructure and environment conducive to raising healthy, happy, well-rounded children?
This business of encouraging more couples to have children is complex.
Former Executive Director of the Barbados Family Planning Association George Griffith perhaps said it best. Barbados needs a population policy that must include “a comprehensive range of compelling incentives that would cause women to want to have more children”.
Any discussion on population growth must not simply deal with just having more children; it must take into account wider development issues if we are to safeguard our future.