Friday, May 27, 2011

African Population Turning Point: 860 Million Now, 1.5 to 2 Billion by 2050

In the coming decades, the West African countries could benefit from a demographic window of opportunity to reduce their poverty. The arrival of 160 million young people on the labor market between 2010 and 2030 could accelerate economic growth. These countries could take advantage of this “demographic dividend”, which the emerging countries have been doing for 40 years. On condition that they lower their fertility rates, are still the highest in the world, with an average of five children per woman. That would enable them to reduce the number of economically non-active people being supported for each active individual.

Credit: © IRD / J.-J. Lemasson

An IRD researcher asserts this in a review published recently by the Agence française de développement (AFD), concerning a far-reaching survey1 conducted in 12 West African countries2: family planning and promotion of contraception are some of the main keys to sustainable economic growth. Yet to arrive at such a situation, these countries must assign 3 to 5 times the means currently given over to such a policy. Will they be able to manage this population turning point successfully?

Several countries of West Africa -like Burkina Faso, Mali, or Ghana- have regained economic growth since the mid 1990s, with annual rates of 4 to 6%. But with their high population, this advance is still insufficient to meet societies’ health and education needs, reduce deficiencies in food and nutritional security and reduce poverty, which still affects between one and two-thirds of these countries’ inhabitants.

Fall in fecundity, a key to economic improvement

The West African countries will only be able to emerge economically if they seize a demographic window of opportunity by reducing their fertility, as the present emerging countries have done from the 1970s. This observation is stressed by an IRD researcher in the report recently published by the AFD (French Agency for Development), concerning a far-reaching survey in 12 countries of the region2.

If rapid population growth continues*, a substantial rise in size of the active population can be expected in the next 20 years. The arrival on the West African labour markets of a high number of young people –increasing from an annual 6 million per year in 2010 to nearly 10 million in 2010– could prove to be disastrous if economic growth does not arrive and jobs are not created. However, this could become an advantage if a fall in fertility led to a reduction in the number of people supported (children and elderly people) per active individual (15-64). With a fall in this ratio, also termed “dependency rate”, the active sections of society could cut their expenditure, essentially devoted to the needs of their children, and devote a large slice of their income to savings and productive investments. If they did this, they would help stimulate economic growth. .

Accelerate the population transition : an urgent objective

Reducing fertility to accelerate the population transition and hence reduce the dependency rate is therefore essential for a sustainable economic growth. In fact, between 1970 and 2000, most developing regions, like East and South-East Asia, where population transitions have been rapid, have benefited from the demographic dividend. Most that is, except for Sub-Saharan Africa, indeed because the birth rates there are still very high. They remain the highest in the world, with an average of more than 5 children per woman.

Consequently, in West Africa now, the ratio is still one non-active for every active individual, giving a dependence rate of 100%. However, with means 3 to 5 times greater than those currently allocated to family planning, the countries of the region could halve this ratio in 20 years’ time, to reach levels of dependence close to those now observed in the emerging countries.

Priorities dictated by emergency situations

Up to now, the financial and human means attributed to population control have been lacking in Africa owing to a low level of political commitment and the shortage of data and research in this field. In fact, in the face of major public health problems the policies, plans, programmes and strategies implemented over the course of the past 20 years have had to concentrate on prevention and health care measures for people with HIV/AIDs and costs assured for pregnancy, births and obstetrical and neonatal emergencies.

In parallel with such operations, access to family planning services and promotion of the use of contraception have not been sufficiently encouraged. Currently, only 10 to 20% of African women living in a couple have recourse to a form of contraception. Nevertheless, there is a strong demand for family planning: between 30 and 60% of these women wish to have access to such a service.

Development does not boil down simply to birth control, but the acceleration of the population transition thanks to the rise in use of contraception –which answers needs women express– is one of the most important keys which could enable West Africa to take up the socio-economic challenges the region will have to confront. It must be recalled that half of the strong economic growth observed in East and South-East Asia between 1970 and 2000 can be attributable to demographic changes prompted by governments. Like in these regions, the West African countries must in the next 10 years greatly increase the resources devoted to family planning in order to stabilize the number of births from now to 2030 and hope to benefit from the demographic dividend. Will they in their turn be able to manage this turning point successfully?

* See Scientific news sheet n°282: Sub-saharan Africa: the population emergency (lien web:

The survey « Comment bénéficier du dividende démographique? La démographie au centre des trajectoires de développement dans les pays de l’UEMOA, en Guinée, en Mauritanie, au Ghana et Nigeria », produced with the assistance of the AFD, was coordinated by Initiatives Conseil International, Burkina Faso.
These are eight countries of the de Economic Community of West African States– UEMOA (Benin, Burkina-Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo), Guinea, Ghana, Mauritania Nigeria. See the general review and country reports on et
Did you know ?

The population of Sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 2010 to 860 million inhabitants, could be between 1.5 and 2 billion by 2050.

Source: Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD)

L’étude « Comment bénéficier du dividende démographique? La démographie au centre des trajectoires de développement dans les pays de l’UEMOA, en Guinée, en Mauritanie, au Ghana et Nigeria », réalisée avec l’appui de l’AFD, a été coordonnée par Initiatives Conseil International, Burkina Faso.

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