Why are birth rates higher in developing countries?

Even though we’ve looked at theories suggesting high birth rates may not be a problem, it remains a fact that birth rates are higher in the developing world. Here are some theories why this is the case…

The first set of theories below come from a Modernisation Theory perspective

Traditional religious values

Paul Harrison’s inside the third world (1990) points out the highest growth rates are in Muslim and Roman Catholic countries. He argues that strictly religious cultures fear that using contraception would encourage promiscuity. Both Islamic leaders and Catholic leaders counsel against the use of contraception in the developing world.

Traditional Masculinity

Many men in Latin America feel that using contraception would compromise their masculinity


Patriarchy is the norm in many developing countries, which excludes women from decision making processes. In some traditional cultures women do not have a say in whether they have children and are effectively seen as the property of men. Introducing contraception would give women more control over their bodies and effectively undermine the patriarchal basis of power in those countries. Thus it is a combination of traditional religious beliefs and patriarchy that contribute to high population growth.

Dependency Theory

Adamson (1986) argues that poverty causes overpopulation rather than internal cultural values causing overpopulation and then overpopulation causing poverty. He argues that there are several reasons why it is rational for poor people to have lots of children.

  • In developing countries children are seen as economic assets because of the increased income they can generate. This is especially true where the government does not punish parents for not sending their children to school.
  • Children provide old age care to parents in developing countries where there is no social welfare/ pensions
  • In areas of high infant mortality, it makes sense to have 5 or more children as this increases the likelihood of at least one of them surviving to adulthood.

Conversely, in developed countries with higher standards of living it costs much more money to bring up children which discourages large families. This was the case in the UK in the 19th century.


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