born Ester Børgesen
in Copenhagen, was a Danish economist, writer. She studied economical and agricultural development, worked at the United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...
as well as other international organization
An intergovernmental organization, sometimes rendered as an international governmental organization and both abbreviated as IGO, is an organization composed primarily of sovereign states , or of other intergovernmental organizations...
s, and she wrote several books. Her most notable book is The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure
. This book presents a "dynamic analysis embracing all types of primitive agriculture." The work undoes the assumption dating back to Malthus’s
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography. Malthus popularized the economic theory of rent....
time (and still held in many quarters) that agricultural methods determine population (via food supply). Instead, Boserup argued that population determines agricultural methods. A major point of her book is that "necessity is the mother of invention". It was her great belief that humanity would always find a way and was quoted in saying "The power of ingenuity would always outmatch that of demand" in a letter to Northern Irish philosopher T S Hueston. She also influenced debate on the role of women
Gender roles refer to the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture, which differ widely between cultures and over time...
in workforce and human development, and the possibility of better opportunities of work and education for women.
According to Malthusian theory, the size and growth of the population depends on the food supply and agricultural methods. In Boserup’s theory agricultural methods depend on the size of the population. In the Malthusian view, in times when food is not sufficient for everyone, the excess population will die. However, Boserup argued that in those times of pressure, people will find ways to increase the production of food by increasing workforce, machinery, fertilizers, etc.
Although Boserup is widely regarded as anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework.
She argued that when population density
Population density is a measurement of population per unit area or unit volume. It is frequently applied to living organisms, and particularly to humans...
is low enough to allow it, land tends to be used intermittently, with heavy reliance on fire to clear fields and fallowing to restore fertility (often called slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...
farming). Numerous studies have shown such methods to be favourable in total workload and also efficiency (output versus input). In Boserup’s theory, it is only when rising population density curtails the use of fallowing (and therefore the use of fire) that fields are moved towards annual cultivation. Contending with insufficiently fallowed, less fertile plots, covered with grass or bushes rather than forest, mandates expanded efforts at fertilizing, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation. These changes often induce agricultural innovation, but increase marginal labour cost to the farmer as well: the higher the rural population density, the more hours the farmer must work for the same amount of produce. Therefore, workloads tend to rise while efficiency drops. This process of raising production at the cost of more work at lower efficiency is what Boserup describes as "agricultural intensification".
The theory has been instrumental in understanding agricultural patterns in developing countries, although it is highly simplified and generalized.
Case study: Mauritius
Mauritius , officially the Republic of Mauritius is an island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent in the southwest Indian Ocean, about east of Madagascar...
is an island country of 1860 km2
in area, located off the east coast of Africa. Farming and fishing are its main ventures, with agriculture accounting for 10% of its GDP. This is comprehensible since it has fertile soils and a tropical climate
A tropical climate is a climate of the tropics. In the Köppen climate classification it is a non-arid climate in which all twelve months have mean temperatures above...
. Its exports are divided into four main categories: sugar (32%), garments (31%), plastics (32%) and others (5%).
Its population in 1992 was 1,094,000 people. For 2025, the estimated population is 1,365,000. This would mean a growth rate of 1.45%, with a doubling time
The doubling time is the period of time required for a quantity to double in size or value. It is applied to population growth, inflation, resource extraction, consumption of goods, compound interest, the volume of malignant tumours, and many other things which tend to grow over time...
of 47 years. Its fertility rate
The total fertility rate of a population is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to experience the exact current age-specific fertility rates through her lifetime, and she...
was of 2.17 children per woman. Mauritius’ population growth over time can be represented by the following graph:
It is possible to notice how uneven population growth has been in Mauritius. At first it was a maintained at a more or less constant level, because there were almost equal values of birth and death rates
Mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths in a population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit time...
. Around the 1950s, the birth rate
Crude birth rate is the nativity or childbirths per 1,000 people per year . Another word used interchangeably with "birth rate" is "natality". When the crude birth rate is subtracted from the crude death rate, it reveals the rate of natural increase...
increased significantly (from 35 per thousand to more than 45 per thousand). The death rate declined from 30 to 15 per thousand shortly afterwards.
The rate of natural increase
Population growth is the change in a population over time, and can be quantified as the change in the number of individuals of any species in a population using "per unit time" for measurement....
was very great, and there was a great pressure on the country for resources because of this increasing population. It was then that the government had to intervene. It promoted family planning
Family planning is the planning of when to have children, and the use of birth control and other techniques to implement such plans. Other techniques commonly used include sexuality education, prevention and management of sexually transmitted infections, pre-conception counseling and...
, restricted early marriage, provided improved health care and looked to improve the status of women. The government also worked on diversifying agriculture, invested in industry and improved trading links.
With time, there were changes in general attitude toward family size and people were getting married later. As well, there was an improvement in educational and work opportunities for women (in 1975 employment of women was 22.3%, by 1990 it had increased to 35.75%). Many transnational companies came to Mauritius because of tax incentives
Various tax systems grant a tax exemption to certain organizations, persons, income, property or other items taxable under the system. Tax exemption may also refer to a personal allowance or specific monetary exemption which may be claimed by an individual to reduce taxable income under some...
, the Freeport at Port Luis, the large number of educated residents, a considerable amount of cheap labour and the good transportation means present.
This would assert to us Boserup’s theory that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Because the population had risen, the government had to take measures to adapt to this growth. It had to improve and diversify agriculture, so proving agricultural intensification and that “population growth causes agricultural growth.” (This idea is presented in The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure; 1965.) It also suggests that a country must improve its technology to be able to support the growing population, and that many technologies will not be taken advantage of if the population is not large enough. (These ideas are presented in Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-term Trends; 1981.) Mauritius had to build a Freeport and improve transportation to be able to maintain its population.
Ester Boserup also contributed to the discourse surrounding gender and development
The Gender and Development approach is a way of determining how best to structure development projects and programs based on analysis of gender relationships...
practises with her 1970 work "Woman's Role in Economic Development" (London, Earthscan, 1970, ISBN 1-85383-040-2). The work is "the first investigation ever undertaken into what happens to women in the process of economic and social growth throughout the Third World
The term Third World arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either capitalism and NATO , or communism and the Soviet Union...
". According to the foreword in the 1989 edition by Dr. Swasti Mitter, "It is [Boserup's] committed and scholarly work that inspired the UN Decade for Women between 1975 and 1985, and that has encouraged aid agencies to question the assumption of gender neutrality in the costs as well as in the benefits of development". Boserup's text evaluated how work was divided between men and women, the types of jobs that constituted productive work, and the type of education women needed to enhance development. This text marked a shift in the Women in Development
Women in Development is an approach to development projects that emerged in the 1970s, calling for treatment of women's issues in development projects...
(WID) debates, because it argued that women's contributions, both domestic and in the paid workforce, contributed to national economies. Many liberal feminists took Boserup's analysis further to argue that the costs of modern economic development were shouldered by women.
She was the only daughter of a Danish engineer, who died when she was two years old and the family was almost destitute for several years. Then, "Encouraged by her mother and aware of her limited prospects without a good degree, Ester studied diligently and entered the University [of Copenhagen] when she was nineteen. No wonder that Ester championed education for women throughout her life." In 1935, she graduated with a degree in theoretical economics. "During university, she married Mogens Boserup when both were twenty-one; the young couple lived on his allowance from his well-off family during their remaining university years."
Her daughter, Birte, was born in 1937; her sons Anders, in 1940, and Ivan, in 1944. Boserup worked for the Danish government from 1935-1947, right through the Nazi occupation in WWII, as head of its planning office, on studies including trade and the effects of subsidies. She made almost no reference to conflicts between family and work during her lifetime. The family moved to Geneva in 1947 to work with the UN Economic Commission of Europe (ECE). In 1957, she and Mogens worked in India in a research project run by Gunnar Myrdal
Karl Gunnar Myrdal was a Swedish Nobel Laureate economist, sociologist, and politician. In 1974, he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Friedrich Hayek for "their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the...
. For the rest of her life she worked as a consultant and writer, based in Copenhagen and then near Geneva when her husband died in 1980.
- Turner, B.L. II and Fischer-Kowalski, M. 2010. Ester Boserup: An interdisciplinary visionary relevant for sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(51): 21963-21965.
- Boserup, E. 2000. My Professional Life and Publications 1929-1998. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 8772895209
- Boserup, E. 1981. Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long Term Trends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Boserup, E. 1976. Environment, Population, and Technology in Primitive Societies. Population and Development Review, 2, 21-36
- Boserup, E. 1970 (reprinted 1997). Women's Role in Economic Development. London: Earthscan. ISBN 1-85383-040-2
- Boserup, E. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. Chicago: Aldine. London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-415-31298-1