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Demography is Destiny

Does Africa need to have fewer babies to become rich?

Does Africa need to have fewer babies to become rich?

by Marcus Roberts | September 29, 2018

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One of the arguments commonly deployed in order to show that a growing population is a bad thing is that it will rapidly lead to famine as the number of people being born outpace the amount of food being produced. This argument was of course famously used by the Rev Thomas Malthus in the early 19th century and by Paul Ehrlich in his book, “The Population Bomb”, in the 1960s.

Such an argument is getting harder to maintain as food production outstrips population growth. As the global population grows, the proportion and the absolute number of those severely malnourished are declining (see our posts on this here and here).

The Economist, in a recent article about fertility rates in Africa, acknowledges this: “Although Malthus is still admired by some, the green revolution rubbished his hypothesis.” However, this doesn’t mean that the liberal magazine thinks high fertility rates in Africa are to be welcomed. It notes that in 1950 sub-Saharan Africa had a third as many people as war-ravaged Europe, but by 2050 the roles are expected to be completely reversed: Europe will have a third as many people as sub-Saharan Africa.

Take the dependency ratio (which is the number of people younger than 20 and older than 64 compared to the number between those ages; the  greater this number, the more people dependant on the working aged population): in Europe, a continent facing a rapidly greying future, the ratio is currently 65:100; in sub-Saharan Africa it is 129:100. Birth rates remain high in the poorest parts of the world, making sickness and poverty that much harder to eradicate. While Asia as a whole took twenty years (1972 to 1992) for its fertility rate to drop from above five to below three, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to take 41 years (until 2054) to complete the same journey.

The "solution" to this fertility boom, The Economist argues, lies in the political sphere. The governments in sub-Saharan Africa must invest in propaganda and education to encourage citizens to have fewer children. In Kenya such efforts have seen the use of effective contraception (I wonder what is counted as “effective” – Natural Family Planning tends to be discounted as such) increase from 32 per cent to 53 per cent of women in just over a decade.

Secondly, governments must invest in education, since several studies suggest that female education and schooling actually depresses fertility. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, governments must work towards peace and stability to bring down lawlessness and infant mortality -- circumstances which make larger families are attractive. The governments and people of sub-Saharan Africa “need to conclude that their countries would be wealthier if they had fewer children."

But why, if a burgeoning population does not necessarily lead to mass starvation, is this growing population of Africa a problem that needs to dealt with? Because, “a surfeit of babies will retard their development." Economic success will not come to those that have too many children apparently. Although, as Shannon pointed out earlier this week, there are ways that Africa can turn its child boom into an economic one too.

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