Power Outages, Power Externalities, and Baby Booms


Determining whether power outages have significant fertility effects is an important policy question in developing countries, where blackouts are common and modern forms of family planning are scarce. Using birth records from Zanzibar, this study shows that a month-long blackout in 2008 caused a significant increase in the number of births 8 to 10 months later. The increase was similar across villages that had electricity, regardless of the level of electrification; villages with no electricity connections saw no changes in birth numbers. The large fertility increase in communities with very low levels of electricity suggests that the outage affected the fertility of households not connected to the grid through some spillover effect. Whether the baby boom is likely to translate to a permanent increase in the population remains unclear, but this article highlights an important hidden consequence of power instability in developing countries. It also suggests that electricity imposes significant externality effects on rural populations that have little exposure to it.

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  1. 1.

    In 2009, for instance, then Uganda Planning Minister Ephraim Kamuntu commented that the frequency of electricity shortages was causing too many births (BBC World Service 2009).

  2. 2.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, lifetime fertility is influenced by delays in first pregnancy and birth spacing (United Nations 2011); anticipating a birth without adjusting birth spacing could thus lead to one more child in a woman’s reproductive lifetime.

  3. 3.

    Lindstrom and Berhanu (1999), Pörtner (2008), and Rodgers et al. (2005) find that the events they study had a significant long-run effect on fertility. In contrast, Evans et al. (2010) found little or no evidence of a long-term effect on fertility.

  4. 4.

    Within the development literature on blackouts, see Adenikinju (2003) for its effects on firm-level outcomes in Nigeria.

  5. 5.

    See Winther (2008) for a rich and very enjoyable anthropological study of the impact of electricity in rural communities in Zanzibar.

  6. 6.

    An extensive literature has explored the impact of televisions on fertility. Jensen and Oster (2009) and La Ferrara et al. (2012) provided evidence that television programming reduces fertility. These studies suggest that television programming provides information about outside social norms, including smaller family sizes.

  7. 7.

    Burlando (2014) also discussed some aggregate fertility effects, but did not study the impact of village electricity on fertility.

  8. 8.

    This statistic excludes those who permanently left Zanzibar because they could not answer the questionnaire. It is unlikely that this group was large, and I could not find quantitative or qualitative evidence that significant out-migration occurred.

  9. 9.

    Records from preceding years were missing, and the data for June 2009 were not yet ready at the time of collection.

  10. 10.

    There is no reason to expect that the lack of representativeness is correlated with the number of births during the blackout in a way that would bias the analysis. Lacking access to the short survey, it is not possible to construct a measure of village population size, or even determine the proportion of village residents that answered the long-form questionnaire.

  11. 11.

    Even non-electrified rural villages could have felt the effects of the blackout if, for instance, it disrupted the work pattern of residents. This channel is likely to be minor in the study communities: the blackout disrupted jobs that depended on electricity directly, and few rural residents hold these types of jobs.

  12. 12.

    I estimate that approximately 25 % of total births occur at Mnazi Mmoja. According to facilities data from the Ministry of Health, the ward delivers 500–900 children per month, representing 48 % of all children born in health facilities (National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) 2011). It is estimated that 61 % of all children in Zanzibar are born at a health facility (NBS 2011).

  13. 13.

    A final possible source of bias is blackout-induced out-migration from Zanzibar. This bias is not likely important given that I could find no quantitative or qualitative evidence for higher than normal migration (Burlando 2014).

  14. 14.

    Assuming that all blackout babies were born at Mnazi Mmoja, 253 is also the lowest bound of the estimated total increase in births. Assuming that only 25 % of blackout births per village were at Mnazi Mmoja (which might be considered an upper bound), the total population increase is 1,012, or approximately 0.084 % of the 1.2 million Zanzibar population.

  15. 15.

    More precisely, I replicate column 4 of Table 2 in which the exposed cohort is not the “blackout baby” cohort but rather the cohort of children born in a 12-week period starting with the sixth week of 2007. Thus, the first coefficient identifies the difference-in-difference estimate on children born between 6 and 18 weeks from the start of 2007, the second identifies those born between 19 and 30 weeks, and so on.

  16. 16.

    As an additional check, I examined the seasonality of births from the 2011–2012 Tanzanian DHS and found no evidence that the “control months” of March 2007 and 2008 were lower than average for the entire country. Tables are available upon request.

  17. 17.

    Although the result in column 1 provides no evidence for or against a harvesting effect, it should alleviate the concern that the baby boom was induced by a permanent and possibly exogenous shift in fertility.

  18. 18.

    A heightened fear of theft was widely reported in qualitative data from conversations with respondents in Zanzibar. In addition to their monetary value, domestic electric appliances confer social status to a family in rural Zanzibar (Winther 2008); as valuable assets, they are owned by the husband and are often received as wedding gifts.

  19. 19.

    For example, suppose that the amount of electricity is correlated with social capital in the community, with more-electrified communities having less social capital. These communities may be less likely to gather together, with more people deciding to stay at home during the crisis.

  20. 20.

    Alternatively, I could write t iv and q iv .

  21. 21.

    These sectors are defined as employing managers, professionals, technicians, clerks, and plant and machine operators.

  22. 22.

    A table with data restricted to the LFS provides similar results and is available from the author upon request.


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I thank three anonymous referees; Dilip Mookherjee, Shankha Chakraborty, Todd Pugatch, Liz Schroeder, and Anh Tran; and seminar participants at Oregon State University, University of Colorado Denver, the Northwest Development Workshop, and the Northeastern Universities Development Conference for helpful comments. In addition, Hajj Mohamed Hajj, Mayasa Mwinyi, Amour Bakari, and the staff at the Zanzibar Ministry of Health and the Zanzibar Office of the Chief Government Statistician all provided excellent fieldwork support.

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Correspondence to Alfredo Burlando.

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Burlando, A. Power Outages, Power Externalities, and Baby Booms. Demography 51, 1477–1500 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0316-7

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  • Africa
  • Blackouts
  • Electricity
  • Fertility
  • Infrastructure development