Population Matters

A Population Boom on The Economist

August 31st, 2009

This week there has been a population boom on The Economist website. First there are two articles dealing with fertility rates in Africa, “The Lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Baby Bonanza: Is Africa an Exception to the Rule that Countries Reap a ‘Demographic Dividend’ as They Grow Richer?” which both also appear in the print edition. The other part of the population boom has been the ongoing Economist Debate “Too Many People?” This debate featured John Seager, President of Population Connection and Michael Lind, Policy Director, Economic Growth/Next Social Contract Programme at New American Foundation, along with three featured guests Adrian Stott, Duff Gillespie, and Robert Engelman.

The two articles focus on whether or not Africa will be able to take advantage of their “demographic dividend.” Which they explain in “The Lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah”:

As birth rates decline, the proportion of children shrinks and the working-age population bulges, as is happening now in Africa. That can kick start industrialization. Factories employ low-skilled farmers fresh from the country, with increases productivity and prosperity, which creates demand, and so it goes on…The “dividend” is not automatic. It has to be earned. A productive, healthy workforce could lift large parts of Africa out of poverty, but an expanding cohort of jobless, idle and frustrated young men will create political and social instability.

“The Baby Bonanza” goes even further and looks at why Africa may or may not be able to take advantage of their demographic dividend. It stresses that unless Africa is able to find the correct policies and overcome many of its problems its demographic dividend will turn into a serious burden that could result in unrest and crime. The author sees three main reasons that Africa will not be able to take full advantage of its demographic dividend.

First, Africa already has difficultly feeding its people and that will worsen with climate change. Africa will need to have its own Green Revolution and help small farms in order to prevent hunger and poverty from limiting its ability to take advantage of the demographic dividend.

The second challenge is the amount of children and lack of jobs for those children. “A recent report by the African Child Policy Forum, an advocacy group, says that there are now 50m orphaned or abandoned children in Africa. It thinks the number could rise to 100m, meaning misery for them and more violent crime for others.”

The final challenge is “Africa’s political violence, corruption and weak or non-existent governing institutions…institutional quality is vital for converting growth of the working-age share into a demographic dividend.”

However the author does feel that Africa has some reason to hope. Africa can make use of innovations that other areas of the world were unable to make use of, witness the skip over landlines to cellular technology and they have the potential to do this in the energy sector as well skipping dirty technology and using renewable power. Another positive sign that the author points out is that some areas in Africa are already experiencing the demographic dividend.

Over the past year, the continent has had the fastest economic growth per person in the world, partly because it has been somewhat less affected by the collapse of world trade, but partly because of the small increases countries are seeing in the number of people of working age.

The conclusion of the article describes Africa’s uncertain future best:

Africa needs a green revolution; more efficient cities; more female education; honest governments; better economic policies. Without those things, Africa will not reap its demographic dividend. But without the transition that Africa has started upon, the continent’s chances of achieving those good things would be even lower than they are. Demography is a start.

Lastly in the population boom, The Economist Online has: The Economist Debates: Too Many People? The rigorous debate started Friday, August 21, 2009 and ends Tuesday, September 1, 2009. So there is still time to post your comments on the debate. It has been a good debate, and one worth taking the time to read over. In the end the moderator, John Parker has noted that while there is much disagreement, “both agree that everyone has the right to family planning and contraceptives.” The ability for both sides to agree on this point highlights the need for universal access to voluntary family planning.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Leave a Reply