We’ve all read about “American exceptionalism” – the idea that America is great because it is different. Because of a unique combination of historical, sociological, religious and political factors, it offers something special to the world.

But what about “African exceptionalism”? Two experts, John Bongaarts and John Casterline, examine this intriguing notion in the latest issue of the world’s leading demography journal, the Population and Development Review.

For demographers, sub-Saharan Africa is a conundrum. In the 1950s fertility levels in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia were high and stable. Women made little effort to limit their fertility through abortion and contraception. But in the mid-1960s fertility began to decline in South America and Asia from about 5.8 children per woman. By 2010, in both regions, it had fallen to about 2.3. This is applauded by Bongaarts and Casterline because, they believe, living standards are bound to rise.

But sub-Saharan Africa has always been different. Fertility did not begin to fall until the mid-1980s and in 2010 it was still more than double the other two regions, at 5.1. “Africa remains distinctive in its pronatalism,” write Bongaarts and Casterline.

The problem – and it is a problem for the authors – is that “ideal family size is higher in Africa”. “The current demographic trajectory is a major obstacle to … development.” They recommend more promotion of family planning through contraception and abortion. But they realize that it will be hard to crush Africans’ love for children.

“Even in the unlikely event that all unmet need could be eliminated, however, Africa’s fertility would remain substantially above contemporary Asian or Latin American levels. The reason is Africa’s high ideal family size, which is clearly an obstacle to rapid fertility decline. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why the current pace of fertility decline is so slow. The conventional view on how to reduce preferences is to invest in social and economic development. There is no doubt that such investments would have a fertility-reducing effect, but this process is likely to take many decades, during which rapid population growth would continue.”

There are two lessons conveyed by this candid article. First, Africa has something to teach the world about families, especially about big families, something that the rest of the world has lost. While developing countries are committing demographic suicide (see this chilling article in the same issue of the journal), the flame of love for new life still burns brightly in Africa.

Second, population control experts are hell-bent on blowing it out.

Please, don’t listen. Think of Japan’s stagnant economy. Think of the epidemic of loneliness and elder abuse in Europe. Think of China, growing old before it grows rich. Africa is an exception. Keep it that way.  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.