One of the concerns that should be keeping the leaders of Europe up at night (and which perhaps prompted the French President’s comments)is that population growth in the twenty-first century is going to be overwhelmingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations’ Population Division as reported in the Financial Times, while about 1 billion people live in sub-Saharan Africa today (13 per cent of the world’s population), in 2050 that number is expected to have more than doubled. By the end of the century nearly 4 billion people will call sub-Saharan Africa home and this will represent over a third of the world’s total population.
Now, such estimates have to be taken with a very large pinch of salt, but they are based upon the current trends: sharply lower infant and child mortality in Africa with a fertility rate that has only declined modestly. (In 1970 the average sub-Saharan woman had 6.7 children; today the same figure is five children per woman – a notable decline but not one that keeps up with declining mortality rates.)
The reason that this impending population growth is a concern for Europe’s leaders is that their continent is already seen as an attractive place for African migrants to head towards. It is rich, it has jobs and it is a short, albeit dangerous, boat ride from the North African littoral. If Europe is currently struggling to figure out what its response to immigration is, imagine how large the problem will be when population pressures in Africa are doubled, trebled or quadrupled! This larger population will need to be fed, watered and employed.
According to the IMF, Africa will need to create 18-20 million more jobs a year for the next quarter century to keep up with its growing population. Apparently some of the prerequisites for this are education, better healthcare, and investment that is attracted by stable economic and political conditions. Hmmm, not an insignificant group of requirements. But this is what is needed if African countries are to capture the “demographic dividend” (the economic benefits gained through an increase in the working aged population and a concomitant decline in the proportion of dependents) that many East Asian nations managed to do from the early 1960s.
As the Financial Times notes, the demographic dividend, and Africa’s economic future, is largely predicated on a “contraceptive revolution”. This phrase, which I had not come across before, means that a country achieves the feat of 75 per cent of its couples using modern contraceptive methods. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa the rate is 26 per cent. This requires not only that more family planning services be provided, but also that “more work is needed to promote the idea that smaller families are beneficial”.
Of course, there is the danger of some post-colonial paternalism here, teaching Africans that what is actually good for them might not be what they want. Furthermore, the demographic dividend that many East Asians nations enjoyed in the late twentieth century is now being replaced by another problem: demographic collapse. Getting people to have fewer children is proving easier to do than getting them to start having more again. Whether Africa will move to a more western family structure will be interesting. Many are hoping that they will, but what do those living in Africa actually want?