Dondena Interviews

Generally speaking, there are two types of childlessness; one related to poverty and the other to the high opportunity cost of childrearing. In a new study by Paula Gobbi, who visited the Dondena Centre in October, she and co-authors Thomas Baudin and David de la Croix show that disregarding these different causes of childlessness can lead to unexpected results when it comes to how development policies offered by governments and aid organizations affect total fertility.


Paula, tell me about your talk today.

I’m talking about childlessness in developing countries, which might sound a little bit strange because when you think of developing countries you think of high fertility rates and high motherhood rates, and therefore low childlessness rates—a few women who end up not being mothers. But if you look at demographic or anthropological studies for developing countries, they show that a large proportion of women might remain childless at the end of their reproductive life. The main reason for this is what we call poverty-driven childlessness.

The purpose of the paper is to see how development affects childlessness, and in particular the composition of childlessness, so how it goes from a poverty-driven type of childlessness to an opportunity-cost-driven type of childlessness—women who end up not having children because they didn’t have time in life, they worked, they had a good career, but they ended up not having the possibility or the time to have children. This is the same logic applying to why the number of children that mothers have goes down when development increases.

But we focus on this poverty type of childlessness, which we estimate for a series of countries. We show that in countries like Argentina, the childlessness rate is close to 14%, of which about 70% are women for whom the opportunity cost of having a child was too high. So they decided not to have children. In Cameroon, which is part of the so-called “African Infertility Belt”, 18% of women are childless, of which almost all is caused by poverty. In general, this means that these women were affected by venereal diseases, they did not get any treatment, and they end up being childless. An unhealthy environment and bad nutrition can also lead to this type of childlessness.

After having identified the causes of childlessness in different countries, we then ask ourselves, what would be the impact of some development policies, like any international organization would push forward on total fertility (childlessness and fertility of mothers all together)? We study specifically female empowerment, family planning, and reduction in child mortality. For example, we find that in countries where there is a high amount of poverty-driven-childlessness, female empowerment can have a less negative impact on total fertility than the expected one, or even a positive impact.  The reason is that by making women richer, they are more likely to have cures for diseases, they are more likely to have treatments in order to procreate and do what the norm is in these countries, and this increases fertility on that margin. So a policy you might think decreases fertility might increase it due to the effect on this poverty-driven-childlessness. This is what we find in Rwanda, for instance.


So how does this paper fit into the larger picture of where you are hoping to go in the future with your research?

I think it is an important aspect of finding out, what is the effect of policies on total fertility? It counter-balances the results on the effect of family planning provided by some demographers from the United Nations. We show that accounting for childlessness diminishes the impact of lowering fertility from a family planning policy. Family planning diminishes fertility because women have a better control over their fertility. But how does it affect childlessness? In order to answer this you have to consider how family planning affects marriage rates. Marrying and being a mother goes hand-in-hand, so you have to consider both decisions together. By implementing a family planning program, the “risk” of getting married decreases, because unwanted births disappear, and unwanted births result in a loss in terms of consumption that could lead to poverty. So in some societies where Malthusian checks are still at play, decreasing the risk of getting married might increase marriages. By increasing marriage, you decrease childlessness. You have more mothers, they have a better control over their fertility, so they decrease their number of births, but there are more mothers, so the total effect on fertility is not as negative as others have predicted.


Tell me about the things you see going on in your field right now, the research you are very excited about, and what would you like to see more of?

I like how we can communicate with different disciplines, with demographers, anthropologists, with sociologists. What I would like to see more of is a better understanding of how we do things. We all have our own methodologies. In the macro-family field, when we want to understand population issues we build a model that we usually cannot solve analytically, so everything is done numerically.  We construct a hypothetical world, each hypothetical person makes decisions, we aggregate everybody’s choices, and that’s how we can see how the population reacts to some policies and understand the effects on all these kinds of different aspects of lives—marriage, number of children, etc. Professor Nezih Guner has a nice TEDx talk on this. But then when you try to explain to other disciplines, I think that’s kind of hard. So I’d like to maybe get to understand each other better and be better able to explain to each other.


Seems like you can all understand each other’s results, but not the why of the result and how you’ve gotten there.

Exactly! And that is an important thing because that’s where the assumptions are on either side.


When you leave Bocconi what’s the next exciting thing on your academic calendar.

Next week I am going to Copenhagen Business School for another talk there.


Learn more about Paul Gobbi here. Learn more about the Dondena Centre Seminar Series here.
















Last updated 10 December 2016 - 05:39:03