Are African women having too many babies?


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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. 

The problem may be that African economies are not growing fast enough; if and when they do grow, fertility rates will come down. To be sure, the relationship between declining fertility and economic growth goes both ways, so we can’t be complacent and let economic growth do all the work. Furthermore, we may not get that rapid economic growth.

If something needs to be done in these high-fertility countries (or perhaps in rapidly-growing countries where fertility is not falling fast enough), what should be done? The answer is not straightforward because the decision of how many children to have is a private decision of the household. Public intervention in that decision can only be justified if there is a “market failure”—an externality or public good associated with fewer children. One of the main market failures is in information about contraceptives and family planning. The intervention then should be providing information. Linking the intervention to the market failure is important because some governments have used the market-failure justification to introduce draconian measures to control population growth.

If the intervention should be providing information, what kind of information is most useful? My colleague Ed Bos tells me that African women know about the availability and use of contraceptives—but they are unsure about side effects, and that is one reason for the low contraceptive prevalence in Africa.

There may be another, indirect reason for intervening: Africa also has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world—824 per 100,000 births. One reason could be that they are not spacing the children enough. But maternal mortality has many other causes, including the poor state of service delivery. We need to tackle these problems too, if we want to improve the health and survival of African mothers.


Shanta Devarajan

Senior Director, DEC and Acting World Bank Group Chief Economist

Join the Conversation

January 12, 2010

Clearly African women are having more children than they can bear or that the existing social services can support (the high rate of maternal mortality is an example for both). It's really singular to approach this question from a 'market failure' point of view. Is the high rate of female illeteracy or the low income of women considered a market failure? Access to reproductive healthcare and knowledge are paramount to the development of African women and African societies.

January 12, 2010

I don't see how "economic growth is probably the best contraceptive" - maybe it's good, but not THE ONLY way to help African mothers. What about education? What about protection from domestic abuse? What about other instuments and policies? Unfortunatly, I am not familiar with African culture well enough, but I know for sure that most women's problems are because of disrespect in society, based on "men-only" leadership. Women have been a "bonus feature" for men for centures all over the world. We need to change our state of minds first, before we will try to improve the economy. Thank you.

Louise Fox
January 12, 2010

Shanta - There is another issue - the implications for public and private savings of a high dependency ratio.

Private households may be myopic about this issue (this problem is the argument for mandatory savings/social insurance for retirement). So Governments need to tell them that it is good for the household to have fewer kids and invest in these fewer children.

In the case of public savings (fiscal space): if all revenue has to go to training teachers and buying books and supplies and building schools so that there are not 100 children per classroom and even then, the quality of education is poor - when will the government have the money to spend on roads and railways and rural electrification and agricultural research and other things that support growth (the antidote to high fertility, as you put it)? It is well known that most "miracle" high growth LDCs already had started quite far down the demographic transition road.

So Governmentat at least needs to tell the population that having fewer children is good for the mothers and good for the country - just as Governments tell their populations that avoiding multiple partnerships and using condoms is good for them and good for the country.

What else should be done is, as you say, a question worth considering.

Leo Bryant
January 15, 2010

Dear Shanta,

Your blog implies that high fertility in Africa is predominantly a consequence of desire for larger families. While this preference does exist across parts of Africa to varying degrees, the low availability of accessible, affordable family planning services plays a much larger role.

Marie Stopes International provides contraceptive services in 18 countries across Africa and in our experience the desire amongst African women to be able to control whether and when they fall pregnant is near universal. We receive women who tell of walking for more than 24 hours to reach us for contraceptive services that their national health services fail to provide. The common reasons we hear for coming to us include: educational and career pursuits, avoiding the burden of carrying both a toddler and a pregnancy while performing hard agricultural labour, the struggle to feed and clothe existing children, and fear of pregnancy having seen a relative killed or disabled by giving birth (many of these births will have been unwanted - WHO estimates that up to 35% of maternal deaths globally could be prevented with universal access to family planning).

Thus even women from ‘high fertility African cultures’ are concerned with balancing any preference for large families with the need to manage personal workloads, household finances and their own health. Policy makers should empower African women to succeed in this balance by ensuring that all are within easy distance of affordable and client-friendly family planning services. Fewer dependents will mean poverty reduction at household level and hence facilitate economic growth at the national level.

Leo Bryant,
Marie Stopes International

January 12, 2010

As an African woman, I believe that some of these problems could be partly countered by emphasizing on education for girls. Once a girl has an education, most often than not, that girl will be able to make better and informed decisions on contraceptives and most often will be able to space out her children, which in effect will be an indirect "contraceptive" thus ensuring that her health and that of her children are taken care of. Of course, this is just a small solution to this problem given that the African culture is still dominated by men who essentially make most of the decision including those that affect the women.

January 25, 2010

Thank you for highlighting this. I very much like the practical statement from the continutor from Marie Stopes International. I think this is the one of the key development questions and I feel the Bank is not addressing this nor showing leadership on this. Its seems a moral failure to accept that the population of Africa is expected to double in the next 20 years and not to question this. I do not believe that every family/women in Africa has access to the needed family planning and contraceptive services. I also do not believe that this is a solely private decision - it is a public policy question. It is also a development question - the fact is that we have been and are currently unable to meet the demand for services now - yes maybe this will be different in the future - I doubt it - but lets anyway deal with the situation as it is now. We keep addressing supply of infrastructure and other services (in every PAD) without every questioning the increase in demand. There are simply not enough resources in the world anymore - and this should not only be a question for Africa - actually I see families in the US have gotten so rich that they are actually having more children not less. It would be good to analyse how many projects in Africa region and in the Bank more widely support family planning vs earlier. The arguments are best made with numbers. I believe the $ amount under Bank supported projects is lower now than it was before.

January 12, 2010

Thank you for your comment. In fact, female illiteracy is at least partly due to a market failure. To see this, consider the fact that female LITERACY has positive externalities: the more people can read and write, the better off is everybody in the community; a mother's education benefits her children. The other reason for female illiteracy is government failure. Governments intervene to correct market failures, but the intervention backfires. For instance, the absentee rate of public, primary school teachers in Uganda is 27 percent. More generally, the low income of women is due to a combination of market and government failures, as I tried to point out in an earlier blog post:

January 13, 2010

Agree with this comment. The real world (unlike the academic one)is a combination of market failure and government failure, constantly trying to balance the public vs. private roles and to correct failures to the extent possible. It is rather simplistic to look at complex issues only through the "market failure" lense. I don't believe any market works perfectly, neither can one tell where the market ends and the public intervention should start.

January 13, 2010

In your post, you clearly mention the obvious solution...When countries are delopping, more emphasis is put on women education and they will therefore have the means to manage their fertility...When a problem like this one raises, the best solution is the one that, taken alone, is sufficient to solve it...Here, clearly, economic development which generally brings more education and so on, by itself is sufficient...If you only restrict women fertility, it will not solve african Nations overall problem...Rather it could inhibit their development in terms of market and labour forces availability.
of course, there are many other ways to increase the economic growth and development of african Nations...just start by fighting corruption!!!

Doug Addison
January 13, 2010

Dear Shanta,

Here’s an interesting case: Sierra Leone has some of the world’s very highest mortality rates for mothers giving birth (2,100 WHO or 857 DHS), infants (155 WHO or 89 DHS), and children under five (262 WHO or 140 DHS). As a consequence, the average woman in Sierra Leone will have between 5 and 6.5 children compared to the low income average of 4.2 children. Sierra Leone’s high fertility rate leads to a high child dependency ratio of around 0.75 that is considerably above the low income average of 0.64 for 2007.

On average, from what one can find in the literature, a 3.5 percentage point decrease in the youth dependency ratio is associated with a one percentage point gain in the private savings rate. Bringing the dependency ratio for Sierra Leone down to the low income country average of 0.64 could increase private savings by 3 percentage points of GDP. This would make a major contribution to the future growth and development of the nation. Yet another reason to urgently seek reform in the health care system there (along with education, water, and nutrition).

January 28, 2010

I feel the Bank is not addressing this nor showing leadership on this. Its seems a moral failure to accept that the population of Africa is expected to double in the next 20 years and not to question this. I do not believe that every family/women in Africa has access to the needed family planning and contraceptive services. I also do not believe that this is a solely private decision - it is a public policy question. It is also a development question - the fact is that we have been and are currently unable to meet the demand for services now - yes maybe this will be different in the future - I doubt it - but lets anyway deal with the situation as it is now. We keep addressing supply of infrastructure and other services (in every PAD) without every questioning the increase in dresses

February 12, 2010

Economic growth is a good contraception. good enough for serious considerations. There is a clear correlation between improved quality of life and birth rates.

In today's world, There CANNOT be economic growth without protection from domestic abuse and decent infrastructures, policies, processes, regulations, etc. those things you mentioned are basic components of economic growth...

Also, women are not the only ones responsible for high birth rates. Yes, if you take away all the women then birth rates drop to zero...but same goes if you take away all the men (well kinda). May that's not a great way to explain myself here...but my point is it's not only about how men treat women but also how women treat men. This does not have to be a gender problem. It's more involved than that.

February 12, 2010

emphasizing on education Period. Emphasize on education for boys, girls, women, men, old, young, poor, rich, etc.

If 100% of women are educated and a mere let's say 20% of men are educated...then there will be another string of related problems. Must we always divide ourselves? If it's not color, it's gender or religion, last names, etc....

Caroline Cheruiyot
May 14, 2010

Women should be empowered in order to enable them make their own personal decisions. This is through education. Women empowerment will make them more or less independent on men hence give them the opportunity to make their own decions. Economi growth in a good extend will also empower women since it will create opportunity for women to engage in businesses and other activities that will create self reliance.


November 23, 2010

Thanks for this previous contribution...I thought I was the only person advocating it...Yes in fact, we all know that land policies in African nations are ridiculous...It is not acceptable that someone owns 100 acres of land and still be poor...This is Africa's reality, Why?..because most of the policies are focussed on giving seeds to farmers or grouping them...When doing so, they are still evolving in their less than normal productivity rates...The solution becomes obvious: the needs of African population should be directly addressed by renting those lands from the traditional owners and creating some well-organized corporations that will produce basic crops such as rice, cassava... in....The output would be high, the traditional owners could work as labor force in these corporations and receive their rent proceed additionnaly...This would also foster local development...!

November 23, 2010

Mr, Shanta, the chief economist for Africa, begins the essay by hammering Africans to have fewer babies without telling why. First of all why Africans need fewer babies? Since he is not interested or have the time to tell us why, I will try to guess some of his worries related to “high fertility”. I belive that Mr Shanta also will agree on the following reasons though he may have different explanation.

May be Mr Shanta’s primary worry is about the poverty in Africa? I guess so. When one makes a major claim, such as saying that the poverty in Africa is due to high fertility rate or population growth then one should be able to provide facts, sources, statistics, empirical evidence, etc., to be able to back up one's claim. Because without such evidence, the claim has no merit.
When Mr. Shanta, the chief economist for Africa wrote the above article, he did not have any evidence to prove his claims. And the reason for this is because such evidence in fact does not exist! For example, consider the title of the article that “African Women have too many babies”. Based on the title I can guess that the writter looks worried because he think that Africa is over populated or will be overpopulated. Well, the United Nations has kept population statistics for many decades. These statistics can be looked at by anybody. And according to these statistics, most of the countries in Africa have very low population densities. Despite this, Shanta is indirectly trying to claim that there are too many people in Africa. Hmm. Can anybody say 'racism'? For your information the population density of Africa as of April 2007 was 27.8/sq.Km while that of Asia was 89/ sq. Km, a figure which is more than triple compared to Africa.
Another of Shanta’s claims is that “the relationship between declining fertility and economic growth goes both ways”. And once again, Shanta does not provide any evidence to support his claim. And again, this is because such evidence simply does not exist. In contrary, when you have more people, then that means that there will be more minds to invent technology. More scientists. More inventors. More engineers. Etc. All of these things make life better.
Shanta also looks worried about food shortage for Africa. Another worry of shanta to insist on lower fertility rate may be Africa is incapable of feeding itself. What Shanta completely ignores is the fact that Africa has vast expanses of land that could be used to grow crops. In fact, the fact that Africa is situated at the equator allows for Africa to grow food year round.
So Shanta tried to make all these false claims, but he does not back them up with any evidence.
There are reasons for why the people in Africa are so poor. But Shanta has ignored these reasons. The reason that Africa doesn't grow enough food to feed itself is neither due to high fertility rate nor lack of contraceptive. It is because the government policies regarding land use in most African counties are based on collective farming, instead of on private ownership. The reason that Africa does not benefit from its vast supplies of natural resources is because most of the countries in Africa do not protect private property rights and contracts, and so private companies used to afraid to do business in Africa. Thus, the problems of poverty in Africa have everything to do with Africa's own ridiculous government policies, and nothing to do with high fertility, lack of contraceptive or overpopulation. All of this has been discussed in The Economist, which is a very reliable source.
If high fertility and overpopulation causes poverty, then Hong Kong and Japan would be the poorest countries on Earth. Again, the real world shows that the writer has not done his homework.

April 04, 2011

I have said this for years, Africans are having too many children and I don't know why it's not considered child abuse.

I think it's disgusting seeing these African Aid programmes, with the parents crying about the kids not having enough food or water, and then you discover they have 6,7,8,9 kids themselves, I immediately think "why continue to have kids you can't feed then" I am disgusted by them as human beings.

I feel bad for feeling like this, but I really have a hatred for these kind of people, it's not just Africans, you get people all around the world who are very poor but seem to have a lot of kids, it's as though they expect the state or foreign aid to take care of them, and often they have kids for monetary gains in the first place.

I feel foreign aid would be much better served, by investing in sterilisation clinics. Once these African women, and actually women in the Western World who live in poverty, have had two children, they must then be sterilised, it's harsh but the effects when you don't do it are disastrous.

Anyone who disagrees with me? go to Africa and see the millions of children starving to death, it needs to be stopped. The world doesn't have enough money to sort out these problems (you liberals will just say "give more money") IT DOESN'T HELP, if anything it increases the problems.

Sterilise them please, the right to give birth does NOT top the rights of a child to live a life where they are fed, watered, sheltered, have access to medicine, education.

June 19, 2011

I honestly think that Africans need to get a grip on producing offspring. It's like here in America, If you can't afford babies, don't have them.

June 22, 2011

Thank you James for hitting the nail on the head.
I sometimes wonder if the world have gone mad with the whole help the Africans kids without looking at the reason the kids are starved in the first place, they just keep sending food and these Africans keep overpopulating and waiting for help. It encourages them when you don't tell them they are irresponsible with overpopulation.

July 07, 2011

They should change the names of all inner cities in america from their present names to third world one,thrid world number two etc......

The only difference between the suffering in africa itself and the africans in america,are food stamps and government housing.

Why any woman of any color or nationality would bring children into the world to suffer and die in africa itself,or in america,or worldwide,and bring a child into the world they knowingly cannot feed or cloth,without a reliable husband or home,or food,access to water even???without access to medical care is assinine.


August 11, 2011

Yes an educated African woman would be in a better position to make informed descions about their well being but does not common sense prevail with some of these African women and men???...doesn't common sense say I look around me and know that at any moment I may not have enough food to feed myself let alone all the kids that I might bring into this I am not going to have any kids or as few kids as are neccesary to do whatever manual labor needs to be done.
Seeing all the children dying in Somalia is nothing short of sickening

August 11, 2011

Well James I was agreeing with you until the whole liberals" give more money" and "the world doesn't have enough money to sort out these problems" statements.

Look that "world doesn't have enough money argument is pretty weak and it falls flat when you consider that the U.S. has been wasting money in Iraq (12 billion dollars a month) since 2003 ..if we can throw that money down a sinkhole...I'm sure a fraction of that money could feed tens of thousands of people

January 06, 2012

If a culture emphasizes the education of women then the education of men will grow just as much or more. Not many places in history has there been a time when women have more education than men no matter how much political power is going into educating women. It's a man's world, essentially.

November 06, 2014

Yes, the women are not being educated, however, the boys are handed guns. In some countries, boys 8 years old are sent to kill people. I'd rather stay at home as a girl than have to go out and kill as a boy.

February 05, 2012

yes if you have kids you cant should be locked up for cruelty

February 27, 2013


July 08, 2013

Africa has a multitude of problems, overpopulation being one of them, a previous comment mentioned that this was false due to the low population density, however, if you subtract the vast deserts and highlands that are uninhabitable on the continent a new picture is painted, Africa has a massive population density, rival to that of Bangladesh or Holland, Many Africans have children knowing that they won't have the best start in life, but they still do it, it's because of their culture,from the Kohisians to the Banatu, it runs solid, however it is not quite as sinister as you would think, it demonstrates wealth to keep children, it is a boon to help in agricultural work and in places such as Northern Nigeria and Mali religion plays a more active role, I agree that the people of Africa should have less children, but talks of sterilisation and the stopping of aid are barbaric! Throughout history one thing has been clear, raise living standards and fertility rates drop, people would much rather show off their wealth by buying a big television then looking after another 4 or 5 kids, so if you really want to see a less crowded and more economically viable Africa, you need to help the region economically develop and allow people to make more sensible decisions with the help of economic safeguards and education, this brings a better environment for young Africans, the continent looses it's brain drain and it can catch up to the rest of the world, not quite the Asian overnight dream that so many expect of Africa, but slow and consistent help might be just as good, allowing the continent time to adapt and make permanent change for the better.

Benard Huma
October 01, 2014

Governments have to intervene in improving health services up he rural areas were still noted high births than in rural areas, educating students through schools so as to have optimal family when reaches maturity. Government have to improve economic infrastructures that can enhance sustainable household economy so as can meet wants.

Martin Oldburg
September 19, 2014

Well, Europeans and Russians are hardly producing any children. So, Africa, keep on reproducing exponentially and keep on swarming the Mediterranean with boat-fulls of refugees. So what if a few perish - Africa has an r-Strategy rather than a K-strategy for reproduction. This r-strategy will ensure that Africans will Africanize Europe and other parts of the world. In reality, as their populations age and die out, they will be begging young Africans to come over and take care of them - and inherit their land and goods.

September 26, 2014

I just don't understand why if you don't have enough food already you think it's a good idea to have another kid or two. To me this is just another form of Child Abuse and she be treated as such. You do not need an advanced education to understand that if you are going hungry or your wife is going hungry that maybe instead of having using your energy to create another child you should do some productive and better your life instead of digging a deeper hole. I know this sounds harsh but it's only words and I am not the one starving a child.

Joan rossini
March 13, 2020

The world and particulary Africa has to stop breeding. Billions too many in the world. Many billions. Contraception is available in nearly all countries. The Governments MUST demand these be taken. Women and Men.
WE MUST STOP THE WORLD FROM BREEDING FOR GENERATIONS. Children are dying this is bad. Do not see what economy has to do with children dying.