Population projections, including the most conservative among them, have all arrived at the same categorical conclusion: in 2100, one in three people on the planet will be born in sub-Saharan Africa, while Nigeria’s population will overtake that of China, becoming the second-largest country after India.
By 2050 – that’s less than 30 years from now – the Democratic Republic of Congo will be home to close to 200 million people (including 30 million in the Kinshasa metropolitan area alone), the population of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire will surpass the 10 million threshold and four Sahel countries will see a three-fold increase in their inhabitants. Relative to other continents, such a population explosion is unprecedented in human history, demographers say. No doubt, provided that we put it in context.
Let’s get back to the numbers.
Although fertility rates have been falling steadily since the late 1990s, they remain by far the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, where women give birth on average to 4.7 children, compared to 2.4 children globally. Moreover, birth rates exceed 5 children per woman in most West and Central African countries.
Cape Verde, Djibouti and Mauritius have successfully reined in population growth, but these are small nations to begin with. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa are doing all they can to keep their populations in check. And the list of countries which, from a Malthusian standpoint, can be considered worthy ends there. It should therefore come as no surprise that this part of the world, which at the current rate of growth will account for 35% of the global population in 2100, is also the youngest: the median age on the continent is 19, versus 42 in Europe*.
If our world is becoming increasingly African, it’s first and foremost because four out of seven continents have entered what Pope Francis once called, with concern, a “demographic winter”. Almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa, including in North Africa, fertility rates have tended to fall below the replacement rate – meaning that at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next – of 2.1 births per woman.
The eminent medical journal The Lancet warns that wealthy countries are already experiencing this relentless downward spiral, which will lead to the decline of the world’s population from 2060 onwards. In Europe and North America, fertility rates are in the 1.5 to 2 births per woman range. In Asia, South Korea’s fertility rate has fallen below 1, while Japan’s adult diaper sales outpace those of baby diapers.
China is also indicative of these global trends. Long an obsession for Western commentators and a source of pride for the Chinese Communist Party, China will lose its standing as the world’s most populous nation after 2030, to the great chagrin of Beijing.
The populace of India and, by around 2090, Nigeria will outstrip the ageing giant, which has entered a cycle of population decline: with 1.5 billion inhabitants today, the population of the Xi Jinping-led country could, according to various studies, including that published in The Lancet, fall to 730 million by the end of this century.
Confronted with these numbers, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party decided a year ago to allow married couples to have up to three children. China’s citizens seem hardly enthused by the change, however, so it’s rather unlikely to reverse the country’s trend towards a shrinking population.
We could spend all day speculating over the various reasons why the desire to have children has plummeted in China and elsewhere in the world, with the sole exception of sub-Saharan Africa.
Anxiety over the future, concerns around unemployment and the loss of social status, environmental fear, easy access to contraception, lower rates of religious belief and other reasons have gotten the better of pro-natal policies in affluent and developing countries.
Over a period of 15 years, the South Korean government has invested $178bn in a wide range of social benefits, such as paid leave, free health care, childcare, primary schools, tuition scholarships and other perks, including free iPhones, in a bid to raise birth rates in the country. The trouble is, none of this has made a difference. South Korea’s fertility rate today stands at 0.9, the world’s lowest.
Apart from continuing to increase the retirement age (Germany is considering ticking it up to 69 years), the only potential way out of this population slump for Europe, where retirees will outnumber workers by a factor of two and deaths will outpace births, is to rely on a steady flow of immigration, with most newcomers arriving from the one continent that still has a growing population: Africa.
To maintain its population at current levels, Europe needs to integrate between 2 million and 3 million immigrants each year. If it wasn’t for the high birth rates among its citizens of African descent and from overseas departments and territories, France would already be on par with its southern (Italy, Portugal and Spain) and eastern (Germany) neighbours, where the population is stagnating and will soon be decreasing.
The reality is that, in pure capitalist logic, European governments should be encouraging immigration, if not wooing migrants with cash bonuses, rather than creating myriad roadblocks to immigration.
This couldn’t be truer now that the average level of qualification of prospective migrants in sub-Saharan Africa has risen over the last 15 years: many of them are educated and come from countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, none of which belong to the group of states with the lowest average income per capita. This last finding raises a new problem, as it casts doubt on the commonly held view according to which development automatically leads to a decrease in the propensity to emigrate.
Does this mean that the so-called demographic dividend, to which in principle only Africa can lay claim by the end of this century, is an illusion? No, it doesn’t. But a number of prerequisites must be met in order to benefit from it.
The paradox that it is in sub-Saharan African countries, where life expectancy is the lowest in the world (61 years, compared to 72) and human development indicators are the lowest, that the greatest number of children born is not related to faith and confidence in the future that a decision to procreate often represents. In the poorest households, the need for security in old age – with young people expected to care for the elderly – and the economic contribution of child labour remain key factors driving high birth rates.
Higher standards of living, education levels and rates of urbanisation correlate with lower fertility rates. If Africa is to retain its dynamic, bold and creative citizenry – i.e., those most likely to venture down the risky path of emigration – and reap the rewards of its demographic dividend outside the realm of political discourse, then the continent must emphasise education, work training programmes and forward-thinking job creation policies as much as better family planning.
This is the price to pay to ensure Africa’s sustainable development and rightful standing in tomorrow’s world.
* Africa has the world’s widest age gap between its general population and its leaders, whose median age is 62 years. For example, Cameroonian President Paul Biya is 88, whereas the median age in his country is just 19 years. Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari is 78, compared to his nation’s median age of 18, while Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni is aged 76, well above the median age of 17 in the country.