A few years ago, John Magufuli, the former president of Tanzania, urged women to “throw away their contraceptives” and “keep reproducing” to make their country strong.
Magufuli, a Covid denier, is now dead – of the Covid. But his opinions endure. The idea of ââlimiting population growth in Africa is controversial, often for good reasons. It’s hard to disentangle telling people not to have babies a sordid history of forced sterilization, racism and eugenics.
Many African leaders – including 53 out of 54 men – believe that the number of children their people choose to have is nobody’s business. Population densities in most African countries are not high. The continent is nine times the size of India with a slightly smaller population.
Jimi Wanjigi, a Kenyan businessman and political strategist, wants the women of his country to have more children so that Kenya has “bargaining power like other populated countries.” If more people are the goal, Kenyans are doing well. According to projections by the United Nations Development Program, Kenya’s population will reach 90 million by 2050, almost double that of today and 15 times the level of 1950.
Kenyan women have an average of 3.4 children. That’s above the 2.1 at which a population stabilizes, but well below the African average of 4.4. Nations with much higher fertility rates include Magafuli’s Tanzania (4.9 children), Democratic Republic of Congo (6.0), and Niger (7.0). Nigeria will surpass 400 million people by 2050, overtaking the United States as the third most populous country in the world.
While Africa’s population is booming, much of the world is moving in the opposite direction. In Europe, the Americas and many parts of Asia, the fertility rate has fallen below 2.1, suggesting a decline in the population. In Japan, the population is shrinking by one person per minute. Where Japan goes, China and Europe will follow.
For the foreseeable future, most of the increase in the world’s population will occur in Africa. In 1980, one in 10 of the world’s population was African, writes Edward Paice, author of a new book Young tremore and director of the Africa Research Institute. By 2050, it will be one in four. By then, a third of the world’s working-age population, defined as 15 to 64 years old, will be African, although not all of them will be working. If the raw numbers matter, as Jimi Wanjigi points out, then Africa, often seen as peripheral, will become more central in world affairs.
For others, these trends are catastrophic, promising more hunger, more conflict and more environmental ruin. Certainly, demographic alarmists have been crying wolf for decades. Even if climate change and the collapse of biodiversity are proof that doomsday prophets were right, Africans are hardly to blame. The continent’s per capita carbon emissions are tiny. Africa contains much of what remains of the world’s wilderness.
Yet in one respect Magufuli and Wanjigi are sorely mistaken. Like many, they see a rapidly growing population as a demographic dividend. Africa is the youngest continent, with a median age of 19.7 years compared to 42.5 years in Europe. But youth should not be confused with the demographic engine that fueled the economic take-off in East Asia from the 1970s. It was based on a sharp drop in the fertility rate, which increased the proportion of the population of working age in relation to dependents. In Africa, this dynamic is absent.
The demographic conundrum is this. Are fertility rates falling as countries get richer? Or are countries getting richer because women have fewer babies? In truth, it works both ways.
The best predictor of births is the number of years girls stay in school. A demographer’s rule of thumb is that women who have completed nine years of schooling have fewer than three children. In much of Africa, where patriarchy is ingrained and leaders like Magufuli gleefully tell women to âfree their ovaries,â women do not have enough influence over their lives.
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAids, rightly equates development with women’s rights. She recently praised Bangladesh, a recent economic success, for reducing its fertility rate from seven in the 1990s to 2.2 today.
Small families are not inherently good. But they reflect economic progress. In countries where women are well represented in both politics and the workplace, falling birth rates and rising living standards tend to go hand in hand.
The situation in the 54 African countries is not uniform. The fertility rate in North Africa (3.3) and southern Africa (2.5) has fallen sharply. But too many African women remain subject to the whims of men. If African countries are to break the poverty trap, women need more power over their lives.