A new study by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, points out that, by 2100, on current rates, almost half the children under 18 in the world will be African. At the moment, the share is only a quarter.
This would be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in history. By the end of the century, if current demographic patterns continue for another 85 years (which they may not), Africa would have 4.2 billion people, against 1.1 billion today. Nigeria, whose land mass is similar to Pakistan’s or Venezuela’s, would rise from 180m today to 910m, registering one in 12 of the world’s births.
“The future of humanity is increasingly African,” says Unicef’s report, which shows a “massive shift in the world’s child population towards Africa”. The number of Africans under 18 may swell by two-thirds, to reach almost a billion by 2050, even if child-mortality rates remain relatively high. The new figures assume a reduction in fertility rates over time, as prosperity increases.
Yet Africa seems unusual in that economic growth during the past decade has not cut fertility as much as it has done elsewhere. Fertility rates in some African countries have stalled, instead of falling continuously, as happened throughout East Asia and Latin America.
In truth, I could not find the UNICEF report online, but the numbers come from the UN Population Division. In my own writing, I rarely look at projections past 2050, just because of the high level of uncertainty of any population projection as you go out several decades. Nonetheless, there are some lessons for us all in looking at the prospect of population growth in Africa. What the middle of the continent, in particular, needs is a rapid drop in fertility to create a demographic dividend that can create higher standards of living, as as happened in East Asia, rather than miring people in a Malthusian dilemma of too many people for available resources. As a UNICEF blogger recently noted, the key to that is improving the status of women in Africa. This needs to be top on the list of the new Millennium Development Goals.