John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Africa’s Population Explosion

by John Campbell
October 12, 2011

Residents try to get into a bus at the bus station of Adjame in Abidjan March 20, 2011. (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters)

A Standard Bank analyst is predicting that sub-Saharan Africa’s population will reach two billion over the next forty years. On the positive side, he thinks that Africa’s population will become younger and more affluent, which will promote the growth of a consumer base and generate economic and foreign investment opportunities. I hope so, but I am not so sanguine.

Certainly sub-Sahara Africa’s population is growing. For example, some demographers estimate that Nigeria’s population is already around 165 million, and Lagos (city and state) has seventeen million inhabitants. However, without improvements in governance, economic development, and infrastructure, rapid population growth can exacerbate long-standing quarrels over land use and fuel ethnic and religious violence. The characteristic youth bulge accompanied by soaring levels of youth unemployment adds another layer of instability. And even where there is a plethora of university graduates, too many of them cannot find jobs.

To support its growing population, sub-Saharan Africa needs transformative economic development, including rapid expansion of food production, power generation, and improved infrastructure, especially roads. The economic growth that is measured by conventional statistics is not transforming economies nor creating the necessary jobs. In those countries blessed with abundant natural resources, the resulting state revenues are too often not being used to promote the public good. To achieve the sustained economic growth that would channel and enhance Africa’s productive powers requires leaders and institutions willing and capable of managing limited resources and competing interests.

Population growth is neutral. The question is how governments and their institutions respond to it.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by René Prieto

    A rather honest yet disturbing truth pointed out to me by an African father of ten in a village in Burkina Faso: “A bunch of them are going to die anyway”.
    Rural Africans see children as a gift from God.
    “May God watch over them” is the common blessing, and often it looks like it’s literally understood that way, with naked children running around the countryside unsupervised.
    But times change circumstances. Even though vaccines such as for meningitis are often not distributed by political parties until after a significant population die-off every year (after the windy “death season”) Western medical intervention has greatly improved the general life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa.
    This increase in living mouths to feed however has not come with an increase in available jobs. While I saw some improvements in business and hiring practices, employment protection laws inherited from French systems keep employers from wanting to hire new employees, since firing bad ones is nigh impossible.
    The vast majority of the population still resorts to subsistence farming to survive. The growing population may still be “artificially controlled” by foreign entities such as Monsanto; genetically modified crops that stop reproducing after one season, thus requiring permanent subscription, pose a real threat to a large portion of the population that are too poor to warehouse traditional seed in case the GMO seed no longer becomes available.
    Africa still mainly only creates raw materials for other countries to transform into commercial goods, or foods that see harsh competition from American subsidized (or ‘charitably’ given away) products.
    The increasing population will undoubtedly lead to more political upheavals, and likely wars and famine in currently stable countries if an industrial revolution of sorts doesn’t take place soon. My brief dabble in the grain trade showed the dearth of proper equipment available for mere cleaning of grain, making export to developed countries with strict cleanliness standards difficult. Logistical coordination was also a challenge, but with new technologies such as Twitter that can function on even the oldest SMS capable cellphones a business revolution that can make the population increasingly productive is much more possible. Peace Corps volunteers have started “business boot camps” in Mali. Infiltration of knowledge may greatly help Africa’s participation in the world economy and prevent catastrophe in the region. For the young global entrepreneur, opportunity knocks.

  • Posted by Lawrence Freeman

    I agree with much of what Amb Ccampbell has written in this blog. I am always in favor of growth, but Africa has not developed and has not been assisted in building transformative infrastructure projects especially in power generation, water development, and high speed rail networks across the width of Africa, and north-south. As he says, conventional statistics do not measure accurately the growth of African countries-in fact they are usless. We should measure the real progress of an economy by the growth in physical goods per capita and per square hectare.
    Lawrence Freeman, EIR magazine, African Desk

  • Posted by GPSO 2011

    Because the population of the world ultimately affects most of the issues that we all really care about, the 7 Billion: It’s Time to Talk campaign is working to open up the conversation on population to new audiences around the globe. When everyone recognizes that there is a need to talk openly about population growth and the importance of family planning, the empowerment of women, and reproductive health and rights, we can more easily find the solutions to issues like global hunger and the environment. When people discover how a rapidly growing world population affects them and their hopes for the future, we know that more people, particularly young adults, will want to lend their voices to the global discussion.

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