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Neo-Malthusianism and development: shifting interpretations of a contested paradigm*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2011

Marc Frey
Jacobs University Bremen, SHSS, Campus Ring 1, D-28759 Bremen, Germany E-mail:


This article focuses on the connection between the ideology of neo-Malthusianism and development theory and practice from the mid 1940s to the present. First identified by a few demographic experts, population policies and family planning gradually turned into a global movement for the control of world population. From the beginning, population discourses and policies were intertwined with strategies of socioeconomic development. They were also a reflection of strategic concerns and deliberations about the role of the West in the Cold War and vis-à-vis the emerging Global South. Focusing on the collective impact of individual choices, population controllers assumed that top-down approaches could swiftly change reproductive behaviour. They gave priority to preventing births over health, education, and female empowerment. Family planning began to shift its emphasis from the collective to the individual only in response to outright coercive actions and with the emergence of new actors, most notably feminists, from the late 1970s on.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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87 Hartmann, Reproductive rights, p. ix; Robinson and Ross, ‘Family planning’, p. 435.

88 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, 5–13 September 1994, Cairo, (consulted 20 March 2010).