Want Asian Tiger-like growth? New UN report says Africa can get it - but first must make fewer babies

Fewer babies herald an 'economic miracle' for Africa, but try telling that to the hordes of men who count their children in the tens.

IN many sub-Saharan Africa countries, children are seen as wealth, the more you have, the more respected you are. This cuts across the economic divide—many well educated and exposed men will often quote the popular adage that a “true man does not count his children.” 

For others, having more children simply increases the odds of survival, in a continent where despite recent progress, infant mortality remains unacceptably high. Despite studies showing the potential gains, many policymakers tread lightly when pushing for family planning, aware of cultural beliefs that make it nigh-impossible to sell their reasoning. 

But a new United Nations report shows how this can be achieved, and in ways that would be uncontroversial, and even invisible, through interventions that leave many countries far better off economically and socially, a win-win situation. 

The State of World Population 2014 report places women and the youth squarely in the middle of this growth, arguing that they are the real drivers of the type of growth that would mimic that of the East Asian economies. 

The UN Population Fund on Tuesday said that fewer babies, could mean an “economic miracle” for sub-Saharan Africa, with gains of $500 billion (400 billion euros)—a third of its current GDP— a year over three decades for the region. 

East Asia’s much-touted growth leap saw average annual income per capita more than quadruple between 1965 and 1995. The “demographic dividend” accounted for up to one third of that rise, according to quoted research in the report, referring to when the working-age population outnumbers the rest due to declining fertility rates. 

When Nigeria lost to Indonesia

In 1960, Indonesia and Nigeria had similar ratios of working age to non-working age populations. In the intervening period, Indonesia’s fertility rates begun falling, while Nigeria’s did not, leading to a surge in the Asian country’s working age to non-working ratio. 

The observed result is that Nigeria’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which was higher than Indonesia’s in 1960, is now at about half. A report this year by the World Economic Forum suggests that if Nigeria puts in place the right policies, which would lead to demographic dividends akin to that of Indonesia and other East Asian economies, its GDP per capita income would rise 12% by 2020, and 29% by 2030. 

But while highly desirable, this demographic dividend is attained by going through a demographic transition, which among others involves reducing fertility rates, a tough call given that this prescribes measures such as increased access to contraceptives and family planning choices for young women, anathema to many in conservative Africa. 

Winning people over

But wary governments can bring such constituencies onside by improving health and education access to the youth, measures that would have less opposition, the report shows, but lead down the same path.

The immediate result of these measures would be healthier, but also more, children. This also means that households would use more to maintain the children, resources that would have been deployed in other ways to develop more sources of income. 

Governments would also spend more on providing educational and health services to the increased young population, often at the expense of more “visible” projects such as mega-infrastructure.

But the UN says it is important at this point that unconvinced families and governments stay the course, for this is when the inherent economic benefits become apparent.

When child survival improves, parents become more confident about having less children, leading to a gradual reduction in fertility rates. Fewer children means more income to invest elsewhere for the family.

These healthier children then move into the working age population, where they can earn an income, increasing per capita economic output. It also means that at some point, the labour force growth will outpace the population dependent on it, freeing up even more resources for both the family unit and the country.

An additional benefit, the UNFPA shows, is that more women are ably to participate in the labour force and contribute to the economy. 

When there are fewer people to support, countries have the chance for rapid economic growth as evidenced by the Asian Tigers, whose “economic miracle” rise since the 1970s was among other factors pushed by demographic shifts.

But there is a caveat—such takeoff depends on a country having the right policies and investments, especially touching on the youth, classified as those aged 10-24, into the economy.

Africa’s population remains young— half are today aged under 20 years, and in three countries, Chad, Niger and Uganda they are under 16. By 2050 this median age will have risen to 25, but it would still be below the global average of 36 years. 

According to the report, the share of the youth population peaked in around 2010 in the world’s least developed countries and “has begun declining”, meaning that the working-age population in many African countries will more than double by 2050.

“Recent shifts in the age structure towards younger populations present an unprecedented opportunity to catapult developing economies forward.” 

But this declining proportion does not represent declining numbers: Africa, and the world, now have the highest number of young people in history, at 1.8 billion, up from 721 million in 1950. (See: These new facts about Africa’s population will simply blow you away)

120m job seekers every year

As a result, every year, some 120 million youth enter the job market globally, in developing countries many of them run into a clutch of obstacles, from a shallow job market to health services that are exclusionary in nature. 

This means that it has been very easy for the youth to be seen as a drain on many countries’ strained budgets, and a source of conflict and political support. But the report argues they should instead be seen as rich opportunity, and policies that centre on them developed, in many African countries from scratch.

These include economic policies that expand opportunities for their livelihoods, while expanding their personal health choices, leading to more participation in the economy through informed choices. 

“Without a solid economic and policy framework to back it up, the demographic dividend may not be fully realised,” the report said.

The net effect, if done during the current “one-time” opportunity, even if country differences will be observed, will be rapid ‘tiger-like’ growth that accounts for prevailing cultural and social inclinations, translating into more cash into the pockets.

Few in the conservative African cohort, from Moses Kasirye, a Uganda traffic warden who has fathered 48 children, to the Kenyan churches that are arguing that tetanus jabs are a secret way of family planning, would argue with that.     


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