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How unusual is Africa’s demography? If you take a selection of countries, from Algeria and Tunisia in the north to Botswana and South Africa in the south, you may answer: not that unusual. In the early 1960s those nations had fertility rates of between 5.5 and 7.5, meaning the average woman there could expect to have that number of children during her lifetime.
That was about the same as fertility in Brazil, China, Indonesia and Mexico at the time. Now, all the countries have similar fertility rates of between 1.5 and 3.0. The main difference is that the Asian and Latin American nations saw their fertility decline at a fairly steady pace over the past 50 years, whereas the African ones saw their fertility stay high until the mid-1980s, then fall sharply.
But a recent study by two French-speaking demographers, Jean-Pierre Guengant and John May, casts doubt on this picture of convergence between Africa and the rest. The north and south of the continent, they say, are exceptions. Most of Africa is catching up too little, too late. The result is that the continent’s overall population will rise sharply, its big cities will grow alarmingly, and though its labour force will also expand (which is potentially good for growth), its coming “youth bulge” will be hard to manage. They conclude that governments must do much more to encourage and improve family planning.
Recent census and survey data suggest that African fertility is falling more slowly than the UN had expected in 2010, when it produced its regular worldwide population survey…
That has big implications for the overall size of the continent’s population. There were 1 billion Africans in 2010. The UN, using its “medium projections” (which imply continued convergence), reckons that the population will increase to 1.6 billion by 2030 and will double by 2050. But if the past few years are any guide, these medium projections are too low. According to the UN’s “high variant” (which implies a slower fall in fertility), Africa’s population will rise to 2.7 billion by 2050. If that were to happen, Africans would then account for more than a quarter of the world. In 1970, they made up only a tenth.
Such an increase in population would be associated with enormous rises in urbanisation and in the number of children.
In 2010 Africa had three cities with over 5m inhabitants (Cairo; Kinshasa, Congo’s capital; and Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital). By 2050, it could have 35, with Kinshasa and Lagos each exceeding 30m. Other burgeoning mega-cities are Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, Kenya’s Nairobi and Angola’s Luanda (see chart). Providing basic services to them all will be a nightmare.
There were 411m African children in 2010, aged 14 years or below. By 2050 there will be 839m, according to the UN’s high variant.
Educating all those young minds will be expensive. It is true that there will also be lots of new arrivals into the labour force, who should be able to earn the money to pay for their younger siblings to go to school. In 2010 there were roughly 200m Africans between 15 and 24 years of age and this number could rise to over 450m by 2050.
But the African Development Bank pointed out in 2012 that only a quarter of young African men and just 10% of young African women manage to get jobs in the formal economy before they reach the age of 30. The vast majority of young Africans will continue to have precarious employment—a worrying prospect…
To make matters worse, many economists fret that the recent story of “rising Africa”—a virtuous circle of economic growth and improved governance—is already starting to wear thin. Dani Rodrik of Princeton University, for example, reckons that manufacturing and private investment have hardly budged despite a decade of rising incomes…
In these circumstances, the demographers argue, African governments need to make a bigger effort to spread family planning.
Over 60% of women of child-bearing age use modern contraceptive methods in South Korea, Mexico and Bangladesh. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is below 20%.
Until recently, some governments, such as Uganda’s, even discouraged family planning, though that is changing on the whole. The bigger problem is that social attitudes are not changing much—so, Messrs Guengant and May argue, governments have to do more.
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And you thought the exodus from Africa was bad now!
And what are the odds that the governments will do anything? Very low, is my guess. Like many other places with an excess poor population, the governments are likely to subtly encourage people to emigrate.
If Europe does not get its act together soon, it will be truly Africa north. After all, the demographics of Europe are such that the indigenous population is shrinking. Almost all European countries are below replacement.