I am constantly startled by references to “population growth” as a cause of a number of development challenges. Whether it’s urbanization, food security, or water scarcity, all too often “population growth” is cited as a cause for pessimism or even a reason not to strive for progress. I can almost see Thomas Malthus grinning at me from the shadows.
It gets worse. I recently reviewed a paper where higher fertility among minorities was touted as an explanation for their poverty! A few months ago, a respected professional wrote asking why we weren’t doing more on family planning, since fertility in Africa would pretty much stymie any efforts to provide infrastructure-based services! I hear statements to this effect routinely from policy makers in charge of infrastructure ministries and projects (“how can we keep up with the population?” or “nothing we do will be enough unless we control the population”) but am always amazed when I hear them from scientists of different hues.
So I thought I’d try to set the record straight:
More than 3,500 people, including Presidents and Prime Ministers, have gathered in Bali this week for the fourth International Conference on Family Planning . The unmet need for family planning is an urgent human right and development issue. We’ve no more time to lose!
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.
For far too long, women and girls in Africa have faced discrimination and inequalities in the workforce which have not only hurt them, but their families, communities and their countries as a whole. As we begin 2015, the African Union’s Year of Women’s Empowerment, one thing is clear: we will not reduce poverty without working to achieve gender equality.
While most governments in Africa acknowledge that empowering women and girls is a key contributor to economic development, the fertility transition in Africa ─ an important factor in sustained economic growth ─ has been much slower than in other regions of the world. Access to family planning and maternal health services – as well as education for girls – typically results in improved economic opportunity for women and lower fertility. Some governments in Africa are seeking innovative ways to accelerate the demographic transition. In Niger, for example, where the fertility rate (7.6 children per woman) is among the highest in the world, “School for Husbands”, an education program delivered by trusted, traditional community leaders are flourishing across the country and highlighting the benefits of family planning and reproductive health.
There were more than 7 billion people on earth in 2013. While this is the highest number ever, the population growth rate has been steadily declining, in part due to declining fertility rates. Tomorrow, Friday, July 11, is World Population Day, and in this spirit, I'd like to talk about a key component of population growth: fertility rates.
New entrants to the working age population in most Middle East and North Africa countries encounter economic structures and policies that have long failed to generate an adequate number of new jobs. In recent years, about 5 million people per year have reached working age but only 3 million of them have found jobs. Unfortunately, ongoing political turmoil and associated economic conditions and policies suggest that the jobs challenge will continue to fester for years to come. However, help may be on the way from a “curiously unnoticed” source: falling fertility rates.
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.
An interesting, recently revised working paper by Duflo, Dupas and Kremer looks at the effects of providing school uniforms, teacher training on HIV education, and the two combined. This paper is useful in a number of dimensions – it gives us some sense of the longer term effects of these programs, the methodology is interesting (and informative), and finally, of course, the results are pretty intriguing and definitely food for thought.
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.