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Population Growth and Control in Africa

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Femi Aribisala, at Nigeria Development & Finance Forum

The problem of population growth and control in Africa is somewhat complicated.  While there are too many people in some areas of the continent, there are too few in others.  To a large extent, this peculiarity has been a function of such factors as the slave trade, ethnic wars, migratory movements and indiscriminate balkanisation of Africa by colonial powers.  
     
As a result, Africa displays the unique feature of being overpopulated and under-populated concurrently.  In some areas, the choice is between increased starvation and effective population control.  In others, it is between positive population increase and increased starvation.  In some cases, population control appears to be detrimental to economic growth.  In others, population control is crucial to economic growth.  Granted, a generalised treatment of the dynamics of population growth and control in African cannot but belie the inherent divergences.

African giant

Various “guesstimates” suggest that the total population figure for Africa is now around 1 billion.  It appears that while the continent covers 25% of the world's land area, it has only about 15% of its population.  In effect, Africa is actually under-populated relative to such other continents as Europe and Asia.  Africa has a population density of only 33%, relative to 70% for Europe and 87% for Asia. 

However, Africa has a relatively high population growth rate; something in the range of 4.8% per annum in 2013, up from 3.4% in 2011, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation.  If current demographic trends persist, it is projected that the African population will reach 1.4 billion by 2025.  According to UNICEF, by 2050, it is projected that one out of every three children born in the world will be an African.  That provides amazing food for thought.

The highest increase in new births in the world between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Nigeria.  By 2050, Nigeria's population is projected by the United Nations to be 389 million, rivalling that of the United States at 403 million.  By the end of the century, the U.N. projects that Nigeria's population would be between 900 million and 1 billion, nearing that of China which would by then be the second most populous country in the world after India.  The reason for this is because while Nigeria's population would continue to grow geometrically, China's population is expected to begin to shrink by 2030. 

Today, Africa has the youngest population in the world.  200 million Africans are between 15 and 24 years old.  This young population is expected to more than double by 2050, when as many as 800 million Africans are expected to be between the ages of 25 and 59.  This is expected to provoke a dramatic shift in the working population of the world.  Today, China has the advantage of having the largest labour force worldwide.  But soon, China will be replaced by Africa.  According to these projections, by 2050, one out of every four workers in the world is likely to be an African.  This African labour force would be young and relatively cheap.  Therefore, it is to be expected that multinational companies of the West looking for cheap labour would be inclined to move their businesses to Africa, instead of East Asia. 

Blessing or curse?

This means Africa's population boom offers great opportunities for Africa's future economic transformation.  This can happen, provided Africa's human capital is harnessed productively, and channelled towards appropriate sectors of the economy, in response to changes in the international economic system.  However, at the same time, Africa's population boom poses grave threats to the region's political stability and social cohesion if sufficient economic and employment opportunities remain unavailable for expected newcomers.  

For this reason, in the short-term, unchecked population growth in many an African country has important implications for social and economic development.  It cannot be justified on the simplistic basis of the need to promote rapid industrialisation through the creation of economies of scale.  These remain essentially a function of the “size” of the market; that is, of the effective domestic demand.  Gains in “size” are more readily achieved by increasing income per head than by increasing the number of impoverished peasants.  For the time-being, this should be sought primarily through regional integration and international trade rather than by population growth. 

What a mushrooming  population means in Africa in the short-term is that the economies must run faster merely in order to stand still; with an increase in total output providing only the meagre same as opposed to improved living standards.  Moreover, this portends dire ramifications for urbanisation and employment patterns and, overall, for a manageable rate of social change.  In many African countries, sustained population growth at the present rate cannot possibly be absorbed in the small, albeit expanding, segment of modern or modernising industries which, as a matter of fact, tend to be basically capital-intensive.  Since fertility remains generally high while infant mortality rates appear to be declining gradually, the number of children is on the increase, with a concomitant drop in the proportion of the adult and economically productive population.

With over 400 million Africans currently under the age of 15, this means a large proportion of the national income in African countries is devoted to feeding, clothing and housing “non-producers,” with a consequent proportionately less availability of funds for investment.

Tentative judgment, based on a number of mortality rate information available also leads to the conclusion that life-expectancy in Africa is only 46 years.  This compares unfavourably with life-expectancy in the developed market-economy countries, which is now close to, or above, 80 years.  The Project Director, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Prof. Abdulsalam Nasidi, says Nigeria's life-expectancy is the lowest in West Africa.  However, this is highly debateable; especially as he goes on to say Nigeria's life-expectancy is 47 years.

Kenyan example

The phenomenon of rapid population growth in Africa is probably at its most acute in East Africa.  This region has one of the highest population growth-rates in the world.  It is projected, for example, that Kenya's population will increase from the current 43 million to over 100 million by 2050.

In Kenya, 43 per cent of the population is below 15 years.  This large percentage has to be supported by the working class.  This puts a heavy burden on the workers and leaves them with little room for savings.  At the same time, it offers the prospect of future demographic dividends for Kenya as a result of the process whereby rapid economic growth is achieved through a decline in mortality and fertility rates, leading to dramatic changes in the country's age structure.  This has been the experience of such Asian “tigers” as Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand.

For this reason, it is hardly surprising that the Kenyan government has embarked on an official programme aimed at curbing population growth, with emphasis on education and voluntary methods.  Through widespread publicity campaigns, the programme emphasises the health benefits to both mother and child from the spacing of children, and the relationship between family size and general quality of life.  This link between living standards and population growth is hammered home in schools, training centres and by community development sources.

Family planning

Neither is such effort limited to Kenya.  “Ginormous” African countries like Nigeria, with a huge population of 170 million; and Gambia, three-fifths of whose population of 1.8 million is under 24, have also displayed an upsurge of interest in family planning; and understandably so.  According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, many African governments have now officially established family planning programmes, and others either provide some services or support organisations or individual doctors that run such programmes.  

Family-planning programmes have tended to be constrained by lack of facilities for distributing birth-control information, and to bump against the obstacle of ethno-cultural traditions and considerations which encourage large families.  The desire for large families is enhanced by the perceived economic value of children, the social security they provide parents against old age, and the insurance they are believed to provide against the pervasive feature of early child mortality.  There is also the issue of parental prestige in having a large family.  Thus, many local leaders are prone to regard birth control measures with disfavour and suspicion; a plot to castrate and weaken the country; a capitalist conspiracy perhaps emanating from the one and only CIA. 

In any case, birth control measures imposed “from above” by government authorities and family planning associations have had limited impact on overall population growth in Africa.  Indeed, judging from the experience of western societies, the most effective motivation for birth control rests on individual desire for self-improvement.  In Africa, this can only be generated by a fundamental transformation of the society and its modes of thought through economic development.  The harsh reality is that, despite family-planning initiatives, the only effective means of population “control” has been death by starvation or famine.  In recent years, some of the poorest nations have experienced food shortages, which increased the death-rates and consequently slowed population growth.

Under-population

There is yet another side to the population coin in Africa.  There, the issue appears to be, not over-population but, under-population.  In the vast territory which includes Benin, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad and Togo, an area six times the size of France, has only 77 million people to France's 63 million.  In such countries, the objective of some family-planning programmes has been essentially that of spacing births rather than discouraging them.  Even in those areas where over-population is the issue, the problems of positive population control have ensured that planning often focuses on the effects on mothers and babies of large families, and of children born in rapid succession.

In the final analysis, the issue in Africa is really neither population growth nor its control.  Rather, it is economic development.  “Over-population” is not a condition that is intimately related to numbers in the abstract, without regard to land fertility and technical and economic development.  Otherwise, Africa would definitely not qualify as over-populated.  Neither can the continent really be considered as “under-populated” since there is very little evidence that an absolute lack of manpower is holding up development anywhere.      

Most of the ills attributed to population growth in Africa would disappear with reasonable rates of economic development.  As observed, economic development itself is perhaps the one reliable means to population control.  By itself, the problem of density is one of the least crucial of demographic problems.  Africa's population is not too large in relation to land area, but to reproducible capital, research and educational facilities, the entrepreneurial class, leadership and the available channels of economic diffusion.

Femi Aribisala, a Financial Nigeria magazine columnist and Chairman of the Editorial Board, was the Special Adviser to Professor Bolaji Akinyemi as Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He holds a PhD in International Relations from Oxford University. He also writes a popular column on the Christian faith in one of Nigeria's newspapers.

This article was first published in Financial Nigeria magazine, October 2013 edition. For subscription, please complete online subscription form at www.financialnigeria.com/journal

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