African Population Growth: Blessing or Curse? Perspective is Everything

I had shelved plans to write a post on population issues in Africa a few months ago, but current goings on dictate that I dust off the idea and write a post, so here it is.

I have often, though not systematically, written blog posts about a given topic after observing the extent to which the topic in question has become a hot topic in the news or on social media. More routinely, I have written about topics, not because they are trending, but simply because I personally find them interesting and hope that someone reading my post would find the topic and my take on it equally as interesting.

Back in March, while going through the government and newspaper websites of a number of West African countries as I often do, I came across an entry on the Republic of Guinea’s government site entitled “taking advantage of the demographic dividend to invest in the youth” (see image in article header, with caption in French).

The image features a group of happy twentysomethings taking a selfie with the country’s President Alpha Condé.

I found the concept of “demographic dividend” interesting, because it was an inversion of the usual way in which population growth is described in some quarters as a handicap for certain developing countries. I didn’t think it was enough of an item to write a post so I took note and moved on, but still kept the image for possible future use.

Then, less than a week later I came across a Guardian article entitled “Why have 4 children when you could have seven? Family planning in Niger”. It described the many population-related problems that beset Niger.

It then occurred to me to perhaps write something about the Guinean and Nigerien items at the same time, but I still didn’t bother.

Then French President Emmanuel Macron happened. By “happened” I don’t mean that he was elected, but that he once again brought the issue of Africa’s population / demographics onto my radar. The third time is the charm, as they say, so here I am writing about the issue at last.

At the G20 summit this week, responding to this question from an Ivorian journalist about development in Africa,

“We have seen the Marshall Plan for Europe, which cost more than $150 billion adjusted for 2017 inflation. How much exactly are the G20 countries willing to commit to save Africa, and what would be France’s contribution?”

Macron replied saying:

“I don’t believe for one second in that kind of reasoning. […] Several sums have been allocated to Africa. Marshall Plans for Africa have been devised and applied for decades. If it were so easy, everyone would have seen the results by now. […]

Africa’s challenge is totally different. It is far deeper. It is civilizational. What are Africa’s problems today? Failed states, difficult transitions to democracy, the demographic transition which is one of Africa’s primary challenges, trafficking routes […] and fundamentalist islamist terrorism. […]”

He summed it all up by saying:

“When countries still have 7 or 8 children per woman today, you can decide to spend billions of euros there, but nothing will be stabilized.”

“Civilizational” problem 

The word “civilization” is awfully common in the French language. It can be used generally or to refer to an academic discipline. Civilization is said to refer to “the society, history and institutions” of a given country or region.

As such, Macron, is saying that African institutions need to step their game up (he mentioned corruption and the rule of law in his reply), which isn’t at all false. As for the history element, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy is still the reference in terms of that when he bafflingly opined that Africa “had not taken its place in history” in 2007.

That leaves the society part, and Macron looks set to reach Sarkozy history levels of infamy for his comments on African society with his comments, seen above, on African demography. In the opinion of the man who recently said his thought process was “too complex” for him to field questions from apparently simpleton journalists on upcoming Bastille Day, if only Africans would stop having so many kids, their problems would become so much more manageable.

MACRON COMPLEXE
Title: Emmanuel Macron’s “complex thought”is not suited for interviews. (Source: BFMTV) 

Niger 

This is what the Guardian article has to say about Niger, which has the highest fertility rate in the world:

“in rural Niger, girls get married young, usually as teenagers, and have their first child at 18. Polygamy is legal and commonplace, especially in the rural areas where about 80% of the population resides. More than half of girls don’t complete primary school, and fewer than one in 10 attend secondary school – as a result, less than a quarter of women here are literate. Women have an average of more than seven children apiece, the highest in the world. And they face a one-in-23 chance of dying from pregnancy or childbirth.”

The article goes on to explain that on average women want 9 children, with men wanting 11. I can see Macron saying ‘I told you so’ now.

It continues:

“When you have a huge number of young people who are jobless, they have no choice but to emigrate. […] They may also fall into crime, or integrate into terrorism. The country is facing this problem as well, with the Boko Haram issue – they are recruiting jobless young people.”

The government of Niger has heavily promoted contraception. Be that as it may, women’s disinterest in using it has rendered government efforts to tackle population growth all but futile thus far.

NIGER AGE STRUCTURE

Over two-thirds (68.2%) of Niger’s population is under 25.

Macron has got it all figured out. With so many mouths to feed, how can African countries ever aspire to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

  • No poverty.
  • Zero hunger.
  • Good health and well-being.
  • Quality education.
  • Decent work and economic growth.
  • Reduced inequalities.
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions.

Consider what the CIA World Fact Book has to say about Niger whose population has skyrocket by 450%, going from just over 3 million in 1960 its current level of just under 20 million. Much of it is in line with the findings of the Guardian report:

Niger has the highest total fertility rate (TFR) of any country in the world.

A slight decline in fertility over the last few decades has stalled, […] in large part a product of the continued desire for large families.

In Niger, the TFR is lower than the desired fertility rate, which makes it unlikely that contraceptive use will increase.

The high TFR sustains rapid population growth and a large youth population.

Gender inequality, including a lack of educational opportunities for women and early marriage and childbirth, also contributes to high population growth.

Because of large family sizes, children are inheriting smaller and smaller parcels of land. The dependence of most Nigeriens on subsistence farming on increasingly small landholdings, coupled with declining rainfall and the resultant shrinkage of arable land, are all preventing food production from keeping up with population growth. For more than half a century.

Niger has a GDP of $20 billion ($1100 per capita).

Guinea 

What about Guinea – the country that beamed about its demographic dividend to be capitalized upon?

Three-fifths (61.4%) of Guinea’s population is under 25.

GUINEA AGE STRUCTURE

Guinea’s GDP stood at $16 billion ($1300 per capita) in 2016.

According to the Fact Book:

Guinea’s strong population growth is a result of declining mortality rates and sustained elevated fertility. The population growth rate was somewhat tempered in the 2000s because of a period of net outmigration. Life expectancy and mortality rates have improved over the last two decades. Guinea’s total fertility remains high at about 5 children per woman because of the ongoing preference for larger families, low contraceptive usage and availability, a lack of educational attainment and empowerment among women, and poverty. A lack of literacy and vocational training programs limit job prospects for youths, but even those with university degrees often have no option but to work in the informal sector. About 60% of the country’s large youth population is unemployed.

It appears to be all gloom and doom then….

Or is it?

MEDIAN AGE WORLD

The image above shows median ages around the world. A cursory glance shows that sub-Saharan Africa, coloured green, has median ages in the teens in about 80% of cases.

With all the talk of the socio-economic burden of ageing populations on countries like Japan and EU countries, with the former said to be lacking workers and on the verge of seeing its population shrink by millions over the next 2 or 3 decades, how could it be a purely bad thing to have a high proportion of young people in a country? Doesn’t a young population mean that there should be some measure of optimism about the future, knowing that there will be no shortage of hands to help carry a country along the path to development, when an adequate plan to reach that goal is put in place?

“If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby,

And don’t think maybe, if you can’t feed your baby,

You’ll be always tryin to stop that child from cryin’,

Hustlin’, Stealin’, Lyin’

Now baby’s slowly dyin’

(Michael Jackson – Wanna Be Startin Somethin)

Many would quote the King of Pop and say that people in poor countries simply should not have as many children as many do because they can’t provide materially for those children. There is certainly plenty of truth to that assertion.

OXFAM ENOUGH FOOD

However, as Oxfam points out, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. In rich countries, supermarkets throw out fully edible fruit and vegetables because they don’t fit their appearance criteria. They literally throw away food, while others die. France took steps to outlaw the practice of supermarkets throwing out good food in 2015, but that hasn’t stopped food going to waste because the supermarkets won’t buy them from farmers in the first place.

BFM COURGETTES
Source: BFMTV

The image above shows the comment of a farmer saying “5 tonnes of courgettes are being left to rot. Wholesalers don’t want them because they’ve got spots”. Perfectly good food going uneaten because it isn’t good looking enough.

Wine lakes and butter mountains 

Then there’s the issue of the “wine lakes and butter mountains”; this term refers to the accumulation of countless tonnes and litres of butter, grain, milk and wine when the EU buys farmers’ excess production under the Common Agricultural Policy, stores it, and then ends up dumping it outside the EU in developing countries, wreaking havoc on local producers and hobbling developing countries efforts to achieve food security.

BUTTER MOUNTAIN PLYMOUTH HERALD
Source: Plymouth Herald

Youth as a resource – the Demographic Dividend is Real 

Macron seems convinced in 2017 that high numbers of young people in a country is counter-productive for development.

4 decades ago, one of the world’s premier statesmen, former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal was convinced of the opposite.

The Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) was launched in August 1973, its goal being to incorporate young people into “the initiation of practical action towards the achievement of social justice (focussing on) community development, employment, social action, urban renewal as well as rural development.”

The role of under 25s in social, economic and cultural development was to be promoted through training, exchange of information among member countries, making awards for service, granting fellowships and advising Governments on the eradication of youth unemployment.

Using the youth to increase involvement of local communities in their development through rural co-operatives, introduction of intermediate technology, delivery of health services and involvement in auxiliary service corps were among the CYP’s stated aims.

See any clumsy eugenics-tinged type comments about people stopping having children in there anywhere?

Neither do I. Maybe someone should pass Macron a transcript of Sir Shridath’s speech.

In a 1975 speech delivered at the first meeting of the Commonwealth Youth Programme review group in London, Sir Shridath recognised that increasing proportions of populations under 25 likely meant high unemployment and high levels of general deprivation, leading to the possibility of increased crime.

That notwithstanding, he still spoke of

“Fear of youth as unmanageable vs awareness of youth as a resource.”

Growing Demographic Footprint, Minute Carbon Footprint:

Even if one disregards everything I wrote above about the CYP and about the asset to be harnessed that is youth in general, one can still consider this final point for what it’s worth: sub-Saharan Africa may allegedly to some have a demography issue (and even so, compared to India and China, does it really?); but there are others areas where it is far from the world’s weak link.

Take climate change for example. According to figures released by The Guardian:

  • France has a higher per capita level of carbon emissions than 53 of the 54 countries in Africa – the exception being South Africa.
  • France ranks 18th in terms of total CO2 emissions, well ahead of the nearest sub-Saharan African country, 45th placed Nigeria (the North African countries Egypt and Algeria are 27th and 36th respectively).
  • France’s emissions total (396.65 million tonnes) is 5 times that of Nigeria (77.75), despite that country having 3 times France’s population (186 – 65), meaning that France’s emissions are 15 times worse than Nigeria’s in relative terms.
  • 5 sub-Saharan countries with a total population (there’s that 10-letter word again) of 316.8 million are in the carbon emissions top 100 (Nigeria 45, Angola 78, Sudan 91, Kenya 97, Zimbabwe 100), but their combined emissions of 136.9 million tonnes is only barely one-third (34.5%) of France’s (population 65 million) total.

So no continent has a monopoly on weighing the world down in some way or another.

When it was reported in 2012 that, thanks to Africa’s increasing population, the number of worldwide French-speakers could triple to 700 million by 2050, nobody in France saw Africa’s demographics as a problem, as this was good news for France’s global soft power.

It really depends on perspective, as stated in the title of this piece.

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