Africa’s population grew at an average annual rate of 2.6 percent between 1950 and 2014, much faster than the global average of 1.7 percent as estimated from UN population projection data. During this time, the region experienced a demographic transition, moving from a period of high mortality and fertility rates to one of lower mortality, yet still high fertility rates. Other regions, most notably East Asia, took advantage of their transitions to accelerate growth, and reap a so-called ‘demographic dividend’. Africa is now being presented a similar opportunity.
From my seat as an Education economist at the World Bank, I go through a number of strategies from countries and sectors in Africa outlining how best to achieve economic growth and development. I am repeatedly struck by a key question: Who will do it? Who will add value to African exports? Who will build? Who will invent? Who will cure? The answer is, of course, that graduates from African universities and training institutions should do it. But the problem is one of numbers and quality—there are simply not enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and programs are of uneven quality.
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.