Will Africa benefit economically from its current fertility transition? Between 1990 and 2010, Africa’s birth rate fell from 6.2 to 4.9 births per woman. Such a decline was expected to enhance the region’s schooling and development prospects, by creating a historical opportunity for a ‘demographic dividend.’ In theory, dividends result from a temporary reduction in age-dependency ratios as birth rates fall. In practice however, dividends and the conditions under which they emerge are hard to pin down.
Based on new data and research, there is reason for optimism about Africa’s demography and development. Population growth rates may continue to be high for some more time, but some underlying signals of approaching widespread fertility declines indicate change is in the offing. And, along with incipient changes in the economy, there is reason to expect Africa to be on an upswing. Growing up in Calcutta, we were brought up on Rabindranath Tagore’s magisterial Bengali poem, Africa, in which, referring to the forces of colonialism, the poet talked about how this continent full of potential is repressed by “civilization’s barbaric greed.” The time has now come for Africa to seize the moment.
It struck me to find out that according to the UN’s official projections, populations of Tanzania and Uganda would exceed one billion people by 2100 (up from 45 and 33 million, respectively, in 2010) if total fertility rates in each of these countries remain constant at their 2010 levels (5.6 and 6.4 children per woman, respectively).
To be sure, this “constant fertility scenario” is not a likely one. For a number of reasons, fertility rates tend to fall as economies develop, and the process of demographic transition from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility is already under way in both countries. Still, even under assumption that total fertility rates will gradually decline to about 2 children per woman (and there is no international migration), the UN estimates that there will be 171 million Ugandans and 316 million Tanzanians in 2100.
Twenty-five of the 28 high-fertility (more than 5 children per woman) countries are in Africa. This and related facts have revived the concern that Africa will miss out on the “demographic dividend” –the rapid economic growth rates associated with declining fertility, as experienced by many countries in Asia. But Africa is also the continent with the slowest economic growth in the past. And, as The Economist (and others) pointed out, economic growth is probably the best contraceptive.