By Bob Kasango
Last week the world’s population hit a record 7 billion people and this record is nothing to celebrate.
The world’s population is unevenly distributed, with six of the world’s seven continents being permanently inhabited on a large scale. Asia is the most-populated of Earth’s continents, with its over 4 billion inhabitants accounting for over 60% of the world population. The world’s two most-populated countries alone, China and India, constitute about 37 percent of the world’s population. Africa is the second-most-populated continent, with around 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population.
The world and Africa in particular is currently in the midst of the greatest demographic upheaval in human history. Dramatic reductions in mortality, followed (but with a lag) by equally marked reductions in fertility, resulted in a doubling of world population between 1960 and 2000. A further increase of 2 to 4.5 billion is projected for the current half-century, with the increase concentrated in the world’s least developed countries. Despite alarmist predictions, historical increases in population have not been economically catastrophic. Moreover, changes in population age structure have opened the door to increased prosperity. Demographic changes have had and will continue to have profound repercussions for human well-being and progress, with some possibilities for mediating those repercussions through policy intervention.
Africa though is still something of a demographic outlier compared with the rest of the developing world. Long berated as the sleeping giant, it has now become the fastest-growing and fastest-urbanizing one. Its population has grown from 110m in 1850 to 1 billion today. Its fertility rate is still high: the average woman born today can expect to have five children in her child-bearing years, compared with just 1.7 in East Asia. Barring catastrophe, Africa’s population will reach 2.2 billion by 2050 and 3.6 billion by 2100. To get a sense of this kind of increase, consider that in 1950 there were two Europeans for every African; by 2050, on present trends, there will be two Africans for every European.
In many respects, the figures for Africa represent the most disconcerting aspect of the United Nations report on population growth. It took humankind more than 50,000 years to reach 1 billion, and now Africa alone will be adding more than that number in just four decades.
Africa’s first challenge is to absorb more people into productive employment. Its second is to reduce fertility rates.
No other region will come close to having such a rapid rate of population growth in the coming decades (1.9 percent per year). Africa’s billion only represents 15 percent of world population today, but Africa will account for 49 percent of global population growth over the next four decades.
High fertility rates are driving rapid population growth in Africa. Globally, women are having an average of 2.5 children over the course of their childbearing years. But the average African woman is having nearly 4.5 children (and over 6 in four countries). One consequence of Africa’s high fertility is that a preponderance of its population is young. Twenty-seven percent of the world’s population is under age 15, but in Africa, the figure is 40 percent.
These facts are troubling because population growth is clustered with, and aggravates, other major problems. If you look at all countries in terms of income poverty, water poverty, and the Failed States Index , the 14 countries that rank high on all three, all but one are in Africa (Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Uganda). And the average annual population growth rate of those countries is a whopping 2.6 percent.
Rapid population growth poses many daunting challenges in Africa.
The first and most urgent is the challenge of absorbing large numbers into productive employment. Failure to do this will sink Africa more deeply into a poverty trap and could be a major source of social and political instability.
The second challenge is to reduce fertility, the main driver of Africa’s population growth. This involves addressing the considerable unmet need for contraception to delay childbearing or to limit the number of children. It also involves moderating the high rates of desired fertility seen in much of Africa, which will naturally occur as the status and education of women improve and couples increasingly recognize that they will be better off with smaller families.
The third challenge is for African leaders to engage in honest and socially-minded discussion about fertility control. Africa’s population density is relatively low, but that is not the cause of Africa’s underdevelopment, as leaders like Uganda’s President Museveni have argued.
African leaders need to pay greater heed to the emerging evidence of the “demographic dividend.” This is the boost to economic growth that countries from East Asia to Ireland and now India have seen when their fertility rates declined, allowing substantially more resources to be redirected toward capital accumulation, infrastructure development, technological progress, and skill building when there are fewer kids to feed, clothe, house, and look after. A lower fertility rate also leads to a higher share of working-age people (and hence more potential workers) in a country.
There is good evidence that the way to catalyze this dividend is through investments in public health measures like safe water, sanitation and childhood vaccination, the expansion of girls’ education and increased access to family planning services. Over time, sustaining this dividend will require good policies for labor and financial markets, and carefully constructed trade policies.
That could outweigh all the bad news about civil war, desertification and HIV/AIDS. As societies grow richer, and start to move from high fertility to low, the size of their working-age population increases. The effect is a mechanical one: they have fewer children; the grandparents’ generation has already died off; so they have disproportionately large numbers of working-age adults. According to a study by the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, the share of the working-age population will rise in 27 of 32 African countries between 2005 and 2015.
The result is the “demographic dividend”, which can be cashed in to produce a virtuous cycle of growth. A fast-growing, economically active population provides the initial impetus to industrial production; then a supply of new workers coming from villages can, if handled properly, enable a country to become more productive. China and East Asia are the models. On some calculations, demography accounted for about a third of East Asia’s phenomenal growth over the past 30 years.
Africa’s people are its biggest asset. One day, its workforce could be as lusty and vital as Asia’s—especially compared with that of necrotic Europe. But there is nothing inevitable about the ability to cash in the demographic dividend. For that to happen, Africa will have to choose the right policies and overcome its many problems. If a country fails to address those problems, then the demographic dividend could become a burden. Instead of busy people at work, there will be restless, jobless young thugs; instead of prosperity, there will be crime or civil unrest.
Africa does not have much time to get things right. The period of greatest potential, when the working-age population is disproportionately large, is not open-ended. In demographic terms, it is just a moment or two. Societies age, and as they do the number of older dependents grows and the moment passes.
Africa has a generation or two to show whether it is, indeed, a demographic outlier as pessimists fear—one in which the dividend turns into a curse—or whether it is able to follow the path blazed by East Asia and reap the benefits of changing population patterns.
There are three main reasons for pessimism. The first is that even today it struggles to provide for its people. Africa’s population is still growing, even if more slowly because fertility is falling in many countries. And it still faces the classic constraints, identified by Thomas Malthus in the 19th century, of land and water.
Africa today produces less food per head than at any time since independence. Farms are getting smaller, sometimes farcically so. Dividing village plots among sons is like cutting up postage stamps. The average smallholding of just over half an acre (0.25 hectares) is too small to feed a family—hence the continent’s widespread stunting. Africa’s disease burden extends to its animals and crops. Bananas, for example, are subject to two diseases—bunchy top disease and bacterial wilt disease—which can ruin 80% of a harvest. Scientists reckon 30m people who depend on the fruit are at risk; many of them live in conflict zones such as eastern Congo.
The task of providing for hungry and thirsty people will be complicated by climate change—a big difference from the demographic transitions in Asia and Latin America. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks Africa will be the continent hardest hit. Even its best-case scenario (an increase in global temperatures of 1.1-2.9°C by 2100) could be ruinous. The United Nations Environment Programme says 75m-250m Africans could go thirsty. That will mean girls will spend longer walking to fetch water which could encourage them to drop out of school and bear children earlier.
These are predictions, not certainties. They do not necessarily mean the land cannot be made to support more people. Tree cover in southern Niger, for example, has increased tenfold since the devastating droughts of the 1970s. A government decision to let farmers, rather than the state, own the trees, has made them more valuable by allowing locals to capture the benefits of harvesting bark, branches, seeds and fruits, meaning that locals are less likely to cut them down.
Elsewhere, though, the losses are huge. Forests in Kenya have shrunk by at least 60% since 1990, mainly because more people are cutting down trees for fuel. And if Kenya cannot save a forest, what hope is there for Congo’s rainforest?
In the midst of all the doom and gloom, some African countries continue to make good strides in the right direction and giving hope to the continent. At the end of September 2011, the National Forest Policy of Rwanda won first place at the annual awards for policies aimed at creating better living conditions for future generations, an award backed by the United Nations.
Rwanda suffered 65% forest loss between the 1960s and 1990s. The situation was further complicated by the 1994 genocide, which also negatively affected the environment and forests in the country with the increasing demand for wood needed for the reconstruction that followed. The overall degradation of soil, water, land and forestry resources presented enormous challenges to the future of the nation’s survival.
However, despite the existing land and population pressure, Rwanda has managed to reverse the declining forest cover. The concept underlying the adoption of environment and forest restoration measures was that taking care of the environment would help reduce poverty and secure the survival of the population that is expected to double over the course of the next 30 years.
The award-winning policy of Rwanda was introduced in 2004 to promote massive reforestation, as the country ratified the Kyoto protocol the same year. The local population was involved in planting activities that promoted species indigenous to the area. Measures also included agro-forestry as well as education about forest
Thanks to its demographic transition. Africa will suffer less from these afflictions than it otherwise would. But it cannot remove them altogether, because the continent’s population will continue to grow, albeit more slowly. The hunger, poverty and strife this causes could gravely limit the demographic dividend.
Which leads to the second reason for pessimism: Africa’s families are under greater strain than Asia’s or Latin America’s were when their demographic transitions first began. That means, pessimists fear, that African countries may fail to navigate the virtuous cycle of industrialization, growing employment, increasing productivity and prosperity.
One African in two is a child. The numbers are such that traditional ways of caring for children in extended families and communities are breaking down. In southern Africa, as a result of HIV/AIDS, an increasing number of families are headed by children. A recent report by the African Child Policy Forum, says there are now 50m orphaned or abandoned children in Africa. It thinks the number could rise to 100m, meaning misery for them and more violent crimes for others.
Millions of children already live rough in towns and cities. Prostitution and death await the poorest girls. The boys take to glue, petrol and crime. Africa has the highest rate of child disablement in the world. Some think 10-20% may be disabled, a staggering number.
Throughout Africa the burden of disease weighs heavily. Between them, malaria and HIV/AIDS account for about a third of the continent’s 10m deaths each year. In the ten years to 1995, more than 4m Africans died of AIDS and many countries have ten times as many people living with HIV as have died. Most are between 20 and 59. So HIV/AIDS is damaging that very section of the population—working-age adults—on which the demographic dividend depends.
If young people do not get jobs, or some stake in society, they may turn to violence. A Norwegian demographer, Henrik Urdal, reckons a country’s risk of conflict rises four percentage points for every one-point increase in the youth population. So Africa’s pyramids, wide at childhood and adolescence, are more promising but also more combustible. In some cities the rate of unemployment is 70%. The unemployed are recruited into militias or gangs for the price of a day’s wage. There was evidence of this after Kenyan 2007 elections, when politicians and businessmen stood accused of paying young men to turn parts of the country into war zones. Lots of underemployed young people mean too many hotheads and not enough elders.
The third reason for pessimism is Africa’s political violence, corruption and weak or non-existent governing institutions. According to the Harvard study, “institutional quality [is vital] for converting growth of the working-age share into a demographic dividend.” Here the continent scores much more poorly than Asia or Latin America did in the 1960s or 1980s.
In the worst cases, civil war has meant that the demographic transition has not even begun. Fertility in Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone—all torn apart by internecine fighting—has barely fallen. In Congo the rate is still six, just as it was in 1950. In the worst places, fecundity tends to track instability. Africa’s highest fertility rates are in the refugee and internally displaced camps in Sudan and Somalia, then in those countries recovering from war, then in famine-pocked patches of desert and scrub stretching from Mauritania to Kenya.
Some Africa-watchers fear that parts of the continent may be getting trapped in a downward spiral: more babies mean more competition for resources, more instability—and more babies. Jared Diamond, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, thinks bits of the continent are already suffering a Malthusian collapse of a sort. The Rwandan genocide, in his view, was a result of too many people pressing on too little land, all overlaid with political tension. Recent collapses in parts of Mauritania, Chad, Sudan, Somalia and Kenya, to name a few, are taken by neo-Malthusians to have their roots in overpopulating marginal land, compounded by political failure.
Yet such events also serve as reminders of how much can change. Twenty five years ago, Mozambique and Namibia were also being torn apart by war and Ghana was lurching from coup to coup. Now, these countries are peaceful, prospering and likely to benefit from the demographic dividend.
Given half a chance, Africa shows what Malthus himself underestimated: innovation. The leapfrogging of decrepit state telecoms by profitable mobile telephone companies is one example. A basket of new technologies could improve prospects for many rural Africans. Only 4% of the continent’s farmland is irrigated. Double that amount, add in fertilizers, seed, credit, information and proper metal warehouses (in some places a quarter of the harvest may be lost to rot and rats), and Africa might not just fill its own 2 billion stomachs, but export farm produce as well.
Africa’s rate of urbanization is the fastest the world has ever seen, says Anna Tibaijuka, the former head of UN Habitat, the UN agency responsible for urban development. In 1950 only Alexandria and Cairo exceeded 1m people. When the city rush is done, Africa may have 80 cities with more than 1m people, plus a cluster of megacities headed by Kinshasa, Lagos and Cairo—none of which show signs of mass starvation. Urbanization is part of the solution to Africa’s demographic problems, not a manifestation of them.
Will the next generation be better off?
It is an open question whether demography should really be considered an African problem—or one of its advantages. The continent has had the fastest economic growth per person in the world, partly because it was somewhat less affected by the collapse of world trade, but partly because of the small increases countries are seeing in the number of people of working age.
The UN Population Division points out that Africa’s overall population is 8% lower today than it would have been if its fertility rate had stayed at its 1970s level. And the trend towards lower fertility is likely to accelerate. The use of modern contraceptives in sub-Saharan Africa is only 12% (though it has doubled since 1994). In Somalia it is 1%.
The case of Rwanda
Rwanda, like many other African countries, now faces an immediate threat to its forward march. Due to a high annual population growth rate, the pessimists had written off Rwanda as a “population burning fuse”.
Rwanda is confounding the critics. With the highest population density on the continent, Rwanda’s population could double in two decades and because 42.4 % of its population are under the age of 15 and 8% over the age of 60, Rwanda’s working age population is burdened and the country may not reap the population dividend unless these trends are reversed.
Rwanda faced a debilitating civil war that not only killed people but also destroyed infrastructure and social structures, thus destroying the foundation on which the demographic transition could have benefited the economy earlier.
Another aspect of the problems Rwanda faces, as most of Sub-Saharan Africa, is the prevalence and virulence of infectious diseases such HIV/AIDS and TB plus malaria.
But Rwanda has made impressive gains in health. Infant mortality rate has fallen from 120.06 in 2000 to 64.04 in 2011 according to Indexmundi and the CIA World Fact Book
Life expectancy at birth has shot up from 39.34 in 2000 to 58.02 in 2011 as has the literacy rate from 48% in 1995 to nearly 80% in 2011. Mostly significantly, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has fallen from 70% in 2000 to below 50% in 2011. The fertility rate (the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age) although falling, has been surprisingly erratic (see table 2 below)
The tiny country is already the most densely populated in mainland Africa and the government sees further growth as one of the main threats to its achievements in rebuilding after the 1994 genocide.
Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has been hailed for pioneering development policies that have helped it beat the odds and become one of the continent’s most dynamic economies.
Concerned about the population pressure on scant resources, it has begun scaling up its family planning programmes to include even NSV vasectomy which is quicker, cheaper and less likely to cause complications than female sterilization. It was developed in China in the late 1970s and introduced to the United States about a decade later, spreading across the world.
The procedure is already involuntarily popular among men and surprisingly young couples. Charles is determined: even though his daily pay of ten dollars is a good one by Rwandan standards, he and his wife struggle to make ends meet.
“We have many expenses. School fees, food, electricity are all very expensive in Kigali,” said Charles, 31. “If we had more children, life would be very difficult.”
He already works 80 hours per week, leaving home each morning well before the sun rises and returning well after it sets.
“I would rather have only two children who are well taken care of and educated than have eight children who spend each day in hunger,” he said.
But these gains don’t come by accident of chance or happenstance, they are deliberate. Rwanda is a good example that with committed leadership and good policies, the threatening population explosion and youth bulges in Africa can be reversed and the demographic dividend reaped and that despite the long list of challenges, the outlook can be positive.
Without the right policy environment, countries will be too slow to adapt to their changing age structure, and at best will miss an opportunity to secure high growth.
Demography needs to be put in perspective. It is not destiny. Africa needs a green revolution; more efficient cities; more female education; honest governments; better economic policies. Without those things, Africa will not reap its demographic dividend. But without the transition that Africa has started upon, the continent’s chances of achieving those good things would be even lower than they are. Demography is a start.