Western Obsession With Africa's "Explosive" Population Growth

The African continent, which is projected to make significant economic gains over the next decade, is in danger of being weighed down by a dramatic explosion in population growth.

A new study titled “Africa’s Demographic Multiplication”, commissioned by the Washington-based Globalist Research Center, points out that Africa’s population has more than tripled during the second half of the 20th century, growing from 230 million to 811 million.

As a result, Africa has become more populous than Europe.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country at 158 million, is expected to grow to 730 million by century’s end, making it larger than Europe’s projected population of 675 million.

The study, authored by Joseph Chamie of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies and a former director of the U.N. Population Division, says that Nigeria is currently the only African country with a population exceeding 100 million.

But 10 other countries in the African continent are expected to join that club before the close of the century: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Together, he says, the population of these 11 African nations is expected to reach 2.4 billion by 2100, representing about a quarter of the world’s population at that time.

According to current projections, total world population is expected to reach a historic seven billion by October this year.

The world’s five most populous countries are China (1.3 billion), India (1.2 billion), the United States (310.2 million), Indonesia (242.9 million) and Brazil (201.1 million).

Africa’s population will soon reach close to one billion, or nearly 15 percent of the world population.

Due to continuing high birth rates (close to five children per woman) and comparatively lower death rates (life expectancy at birth is 56 years), the population of Africa continues to grow rapidly.

While the average annual growth rate for the entire continent is around 2.3 percent, there are even higher rates of growth in excess of 3.0 percent.

This implies a doubling of the population within a generation, as observed in countries such as Mali, Niger and Uganda, whose average fertility rates exceed six children per woman.

Asked if Africa’s future economic growth will be jeopardised by its rising population, Chamie said, “This is a perennial question posed by many.”

The answer depends on many factors, he said, including the size of the population, resources, environment, education, composition and location.

Generally speaking, however, he said, “My answer is this: for many African countries, especially for the least developed, rapidly growing populations will pose serious challenges for their overall development, including future economic growth.”

It would be far easier for these countries to develop and progress with low rates of population growth.

Chamie said future demographic trends are critical components in effectively confronting Africa’s numerous development challenges.

“The international community can play an important role in facilitating the demographic transition to low death and birth rates,” he said.

By virtually any measure, he said, the costs of international assistance to Africa aimed at advancing the continent’s growing population expeditiously through the demographic transition are small, and the resulting benefits are undeniably enormous for families and nations.

In a joint report released last month, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Union Commission said African economies will continue to enjoy high growth rates in 2011. But the report called for “a larger role for the state” in order to translate that growth into job creation and poverty reduction.

According to the 130-page report, the African continent registered a growth rate of 4.7 percent in 2010, and is estimated to rise to 5.0 percent in 2011.

This is attributed to the rebound of export demand and commodity prices over the past 18 months, as well as an increased flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) in extractive industries and also development aid.

“This is good news for Africa, but not good enough for millions of people who are yet to feel the benefits of prosperity in their daily lives,” the report noted.

Still, the continent is far from attaining the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including drastic reductions in hunger and poverty.

The study said that stronger growth has yet to translate into meaningful reductions in unemployment as “poverty rates and high unemployment and food prices have instigated political unrest in some African countries such as Tunisia and Algeria.”

In his report, Chamie said that if Africa’s fertility rates remain unchanged over the coming decades, the population of the continent would grow extremely rapidly, reaching three billion by 2050 and an incredible 15 billion by 2100, or about 15 times Africa’s current population.

Even if fertility rates were to fall instantly to replacement levels, the African population would continue to increase due to its young age-structure (half the population is less than 20 years old), growing to 1.5 billion in 2050 and 1.8 billion in 2100. With high rates of natural increase, in excess of two percent, by the close of the century the population of Africa’s 33 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is expected to reach 2.2 billion, or slightly more than a fifth of the world’s population at that time, noted Chamie.

Asked if the rise in population growth in Africa is also due to improvement in overall health (and extending the average life span) and decline in HIV/AIDS, Chamie further stated that the decline in mortality rates, especially among infants and young children, has contributed to rising population growth.

“And also, yes, if HIV/AIDS levels are high, this will have an impact on population growth as any other mortality factor does,” he added.

If death rates are high, even with high birth rates, population growth will be relatively low (births minus deaths equals population growth, setting aside international migration patterns).

He said rapid population growth occurs when the death rates decline, but birth rates remain high.

Population growth rates return to low levels when fertility rates come down near to replacement, i.e., about two children per couple.

This is basically the demographic transition which has occurred in nearly every major region except Africa, he said.

“The goal is to move Africa through the demographic transition as rapidly as possible,” he added.