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Demography Is Not Always Destiny

African population growth continues at a startling pace. In 2017, Africa’s population was estimated at 1.3 billion people. By 2030 the number is estimated to grow to 1.7 billion. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest total fertility rate (TFR - the average number of babies a woman births over the course of her reproductive life) are in Africa. (The tenth is Afghanistan.) The average number of babies born to women in Niger, for example, is 7.3. The average number of babies born to women in Nigeria is 5.5.

A number of factor account for Africa’s rapid population growth. One is that African women report that they wish for larger families than women from any other continent. Another is the absence of modern contraception in certain countries. Below is a chart on the percentage of women using modern contraceptives, by country. Virtually all African countries are below the levels of the rest of the world.

Simultaneously, some of the world’s lowest total fertility rates are to be found in Europe. The average number of babies born to women in Italy is 1.3; in Germany, 1.5; in France, 1.9. Since the average has to be 2.1 babies per woman to maintain stable adult levels, these numbers will actually result in shrinking populations. But even where the population grows, the numbers for Europe are tiny. For example, Spain’s population is expected to grow from 46 million in 2015 to 48 million by 2050. In the same period, Tanzania’s population will grow from 48 million to 138 million.

It seems a sure bet that those 138 million will not find adequate employment opportunities or a level of well being at home they consider acceptable. Their answer seems obvious — head for those rich European countries whose population have grown only by minuscule amounts or even better, have actually shrunk over the previous decades.

The reality is that Europe faces yet another threatening challenge — from demography.

——Marvin Zonis

By David Pilling

In 1957, when Ghana became the first African country to win its independence, there were 6.05m Ghanaians and some 200m people living in sub-Saharan Africa. Today Ghana’s population has more than quadrupled to 29m and sub-Saharan Africa’s has nearly quintupled to 1bn. This is just the start. Africa is on the verge of an unprecedented population explosion.

If you asked people to identify the most important trends shaping the world, many would name climate change, the rise of China, the potential of artificial intelligence or the surge of nationalism. Few would mention the dramatic increase of the population in a continent that to many is an afterthought.

That view will become harder to sustain. Populations in Europe and the Americas have stopped growing. The population of Asia will peak at around 5bn by 2050. For the next century, most of the increase in the world’s population will happen in Africa.

The UN’s base case is that the number of Africans will double in 30 years to 2bn and at least double again, to 4bn, by the end of the century. If all those new people can find jobs and opportunity, global growth will gradually shift to Africa.

If, as seems equally plausible, they cannot, Africa could become a focus of instability and desperation. Food shortages could worsen, exacerbated by climate change. Clashes such as those between Nigeria’s Fulani herdsman and sedentary farmers that have claimed thousands of lives could intensify along with the struggle for land and resources. The population of Nigeria alone, 45m at independence and 180m today, is expected to more than double again by 2050, surpassing that of the US.

In African Exodus, Asfa-Wossen Asserate, an Ethiopian who has spent his adult life in Germany, says future waves of immigration to Europe could dwarf existing numbers. “Above all, it is a general lack of prospects that is driving Africans from their homes,” he writes.

The median age in sub-Saharan Africa is 19.5. That compares with 38 in the US, 43 in the EU and 47 in Japan. Much population growth is baked into the existing demographic pie. In 1960, roughly one in 10 of the world’s population was African. By the end of the century that will be more than one in three.

Some argue that this is Africa’s demographic dividend. Just as Asia did before it, Africa will reap its rewards in terms of high growth and rising living standards. But this is to misunderstand what a demographic dividend is. If adding people were enough, then Africa would already be rich. The true meaning of a demographic dividend is a drop in the dependency ratio, or a rise in the working-age population relative to young people and retirees. By this measure, Africa does not have a dividend at all. It has a deficit — one that is widening. In much of the world, the working age population (15-64) makes up 60-70 per cent of the total. In Africa, it makes up just 54 per cent.

The main reason is that fertility rates have not fallen as fast as in other regions. In 1960, women in most developing countries had more than six children each. This fell dramatically in subsequent decades. By the mid-1990s, the rate was 3 in Latin America and just 2.2 in east Asia. In Africa it remained stubbornly high, falling slightly to 5.9 by the mid-1990s and to 4.85 today.

The reasons are not obvious. One may be lack of access to contraception, used regularly by less than one in five African women. The UN Development Programme says that, with an average age of 62, African presidents are out of touch with the policy needs of much younger populations. Surveys show that African women want fewer children than they are actually having, but their preferences are still for relatively large families, according to John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a non-profit organisation specialising in reproductive health. This is unlikely to be “cultural”. Besides, cultures change with circumstance. But it does suggest that attachments to large families — born partly out of fear for an impoverished old age — are deep-seated.

Urging population control is controversial. In India, in the 1970s, there were horrific enforced sterilisation programmes born of a conviction that the poor were having too many children. In Africa, some argue that the continent is still sparsely populated by European or Asian standards. Scaremongering about an African population explosion, say others, smacks of racist fears.

Those arguments are understandable. But they are misguided. The growth of Asia suggests strongly that the best way of improving livelihoods is through a reduction in the fertility rate — and with it the dependency ratio. With fewer children to worry about, parents can devote more time and resources to feeding, educating and providing opportunities for those they have.

African leaders would do well not to make blasé assumptions about the supposed economic virtues of their fast-rising populations. They need polices both in the countryside and in the swelling cities to help turn their new muscle power into productive use and to ensure that potential workers do not become disaffected, angry youth.

As important, they should nudge their fertility rates down, not by coercion but by improving health and education systems and by empowering women. After all, what could be the harm in that anyway? 

This piece was posted on August 17, 2018 at http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/FTEurope/default.aspx.

The author can be reached at  david.pilling@ft.com

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