Listen to the radio and decide to have fewer babies

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Other than being an indicator of a household’s welfare status, the ownership of particular durable consumer goods has a much more specific benefit: a radio, a mobile phone, or a television can be a source of information for the household members. So, when data on household ownership of radio and television are collected, they are often taken as a measure of access to mass media, and more specifically to the information through them delivered. In fact exposure to information on television, radio, and in print can increase an individual’s knowledge and awareness of new ideas, social changes, and opportunities, which in turn can affect the individual’s perceptions and behaviors, including those related to health and family choices.

Attending the Development Economics course at Bocconi University – and compulsively surfing Google Scholar – I have found out that numerous studies have analyzed the effect of exposure to mass media, in its different forms, on fertility outcomes. So, when presented with the opportunity to write a paper for my Population Dynamics and Economics class I thought nothing could be more appealing to me than to combine my deep interest for research in development economics and the knowledge I gained living and working in Uganda. So I decided to explore the relationship between media and fertility outcomes a little further.

Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with 57% of its 30.7 million people being below the age of 18, and a further 21.3% between the age of 18 and 30 (UBOS 2010). In addition, with around 94% of Ugandan youth living below US$2 a day, Uganda has the highest poverty incidence among youth in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2008), making a decrease in fertility rates a priority for the Ugandan government. In fact, the Total Fertility Rate in Uganda between 2009 and 2011 has been on average of 6.2 children per woman.

Given that the situation is so challenging, knowing whether there is an effect of the information available through the media on the number of children women decide to have can be of extreme help when structuring government policies or NGOs programs with the aim of reducing fertility rates. Therefore I tried to determine the effect of mass media access on women’s fertility choices by looking at how their family preferences change when information is accessible through the media. To carry out the regression analysis I used a pooled cross-section dataset of the Ugandan Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) carried out in 1988, 1995, 2000, 2006, 2009 and 2011.

As the mass media of interest, I chose radio since, in 2011 (latest data available), two-thirds of Ugandan households had at least a radio, whereas only 17.5% had a television. Moreover, an average of 68% of the women from DHS Surveys reported listening to the radio and 66.5% reported hearing through it about family planning at least once; furthermore this percentage increases to 77.5% if only we consider only those who own a radio in their household. It is relevant to notice that no specifics on radio programs contents were available to me, and therefore my research did not examine the effect of a specific policy or message, but the ones of the ownership of a radio and of the exposure to it. It is in fact safe to assume that any information delivered by the media is relevant to the decrease of fertility related outcomes since they bring “modern” ideas forth, and they are commonly associated with the fall of the taboo on family planning methods and with the promotion of the ideal of smaller and more educated families.

As the fertility outcome variable I chose the “Children Ever Born to Women 40/49 Years Old”, which is the mean number of children ever born to women at the end of their childbearing period. The reason behind this choice has to do with the fact that the age-structure in a country with high mortality such as Uganda needs to be taken into account when considering fertility measures.

The results of the regression analysis show that “Radio Ownership” and “Exposure to Radio” have a negative and statistically significant effect on the CEB40/49. I then decided to try to dig deeper, and investigate the channels through which this effect works, whether by a decrease in the demand for children or by an increase in the awareness of women, or if these drivers work basically at the same pace.

To proxy the demand for children, I constructed a variable capturing the preferences on the number of children starting from an explicit question asked in the DHS questionnaire. Taking into account only those women that can have children, I divided them into three categories: those who want no more children, those who are undecided, and those who want more children. As far as awareness is concerned, I defined whether a woman is “Aware and Proactive” based on her knowledge of the ovulatory cycle and of the existence of contraceptive methods, and on her intention to use any such methods. If a woman complies with all the three characteristics, then she is considered “Aware and Proactive”; if she complies only with the knowledge variables she is “Aware but Not Proactive”; if she only complies with the intention to use she is “Not Aware but Proactive”; and at last if she does not comply with either requirement, she is “Not Aware and Not Proactive”.

The only case in which a significance of the interaction variable is present is the heterogeneous effect of “Radio Ownership” on the “Fertility Preferences” across these four groups, but, in general, results show that no definitive answer can be given as far as which channel is driving the change in fertility outcomes.

To sum up, my research confirms that there is a significant effect of media exposure on the number of children a woman decides to have, and on how much control she gains over the actual number of children she has. It is imperative for policy makers worldwide to take advantage of this channel when designing policies to control fertility outcomes, especially since the cost-effectiveness of acting through an already existing channel could be groundbreaking.

Other than the research outcome itself, what I truly wanted to share with this post is how I strongly believe that a deep knowledge of the real world situation we are trying to investigate in development studies is fundamental when doing research in this field. It is not enough to sit in classrooms and read papers, the real ideas and breakthroughs of what is needed, even in the research literature, come when travelling to these countries and experiencing life through the eyes of the locals. I encourage you all to take the chance to work and live in developing countries. Just as much, I invite you to take part in poverty labs worldwide, where to share ideas and experiences with people interested in the same issues, and why not, also in our very own LEAP at Bocconi University.

Beatrice Montano

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