Selected Publications - Abstract

Cleveland, David A. (1986) The Political Economy of Fertility Regulation: The Kusasi of Savanna West Africa (Ghana). In Culture and Reproduction: An Anthropological Critique of Demographic Transition Theory. W. Penn Handwerker, editor. Pp. 263-293. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.


This paper analyzes high and increasing fertility among Kusasi intensive cultivators living in Bawku District in the extreme northeastern corner of Ghana. The Kusasi number about 250,000 and belong to the Mole-Dagbane language group found in the central area of savanna West Africa. The Kusasi homeland, known as Kusaok, consists of Bawku District and neighboring areas of Burkina Faso and Togo. In good years, the rainy season between May and October can produce the illusion of prosperity, with thick green stands of millet and sorghum towering above the dispersed mud and thatch homesteads. The dry season, however, brings dramatic contrast, with the only relief from the barren, dusty fields being isolated gardens watered by buckets carried from hand-dug wells. An increasing number of Kusasi make their living in this environment with short-handled hoes, wooden flails, grinding stones, and an occasional ox-plow. Despite substantial immigration toward the coast, between 1948 and 1970 the Kusasi population grew by nearly 50%. Increasing population densities have been accompanied by soil erosion, severe reduction in natural vegetation, a reduced productive capacity of the land, and increasingly inadequate food supplies. This growth is partially explained by reduced mortality stemming from public health measures and improvements in transportation permitting freer movement of migrants, cash, and food. However, this growth is also explained by a 44% increase in the total fertility rate (TFR) since 1943.

The research was carried out in 1976-78 in Zorse, a village of about 2000 people living in compounds dispersed over an area of about 60 km2. A series of surveys with household members, including questions on migration, were conducted with a 50% random sample of households (about 140 households with 1000 residents), and the data on women's fertility were collected in a survey of women age 15 and older in the selected households (275 women interviewed). Using a model developed by Bongaarts, analysis of the data shows that in the period 1948-52 to 1973-77 TFR increased from 5.43 to 6.7 as a result of the following changes in two proximate determinants of fertility: proportion of married women (evidenced by age at first birth) decreased from 19.5 to 18.0, and postpartum abstinence from sexual intercourse decreased, as evidenced by a reduction in birth intervals from 43 to 39 months. Postpartum abstinence is the most important of these determinants. While this has been shown to prevail over a wide area of West and Central Africa, I show in this chapter how people consciously manipulate this institution in response to ecological, agricultural, social and demographic change in order to maximize the number of children surviving to adulthood by decreasing birth intervals. As child health improved (mortality rates for the 0-5 age group dropped from 30 to 20 in the period 1948-52 to 1973-77), couples could have children closer together without decreasing survival rates. Decreasing availability and productivity of farmland has led to higher demand for labor on the one hand, and increasing emigration (especially of young men) on the other (male migration rates per 100 increased from 37 to 76 in the period 1948-52 to 1973-77). High fertility is supported both by the need to recruit household labor, and the uncertainty about children remaining at home to support parents in their old age.

Cost-benefit models of fertility developed by economists have thus far not incorporated Caldwell's observation that children may yield parents a net economic gain. Budget constraint lines have negative slopes because it has been assumed that increasing income allows parents to indulge in children as costly consumer goods. This leads to the further assumption that increasing survival rates will lead to decreasing birth rates. In the Kusasi case, however, children appear to produce more than they consume by about age 10, and increased survival rates would logically lead to an increase in fertility. Demand for children can decrease only with a change in the labor value of children. For the Kusasi, new farm technologies that increase the productivity of labor, and new or reinforced social organization that links households' short-term demand for labor with the long-term management of community agricultural resources are the most plausible stimuli for a transition to lower fertility.