This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Useful Reminder About Africa's Demography

This week's Economist is the year-end double issue and, as always, there are more good articles than can be reasonably discussed. The first article to catch my eye was, not surprisingly, the one titled "Africa's population: Miracle or Malthus?" Although there is nothing really new in the article, it is important and useful for the world to periodically be reminded that things are not alright in Africa. The header of the article gives you a taste of this: "Some Africans think they face demographic disaster [this is the Malthus part], others that they could reap a demographic dividend [this is the miracle part]. They will probably get neither." Here are some of the highlights:
African demography is unique. It is the only continent that will double in size, reaching 2 billion people by 2045 at current rates. Some countries, such as Liberia and Niger, are growing faster still, doubling in size in less than 20 years—a stunning increase that is causing forecasts of Malthusian disaster for countries that cannot feed themselves. With 12% of the world’s population, sub-Saharan Africa has 57% of the deaths of mothers in childbirth, 49% of its infant mortality and 67% of HIV infections.
Yet Africa is also showing signs of embarking on the same transition towards smaller families that has occurred everywhere else. In north Africa families of two are the norm. Even if you exclude that region, the sub-Saharan part includes areas of relatively low fertility such as southern Africa, where families of three prevail. Big cities, such as Zambia’s Lusaka and Congo’s Kinshasa, have fertility rates below four; the rate in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa is probably just two. Evidence of lower fertility is raising hopes that Africa can reap a “demographic dividend”, the economic benefit countries get when the share of the working-age population rises relative to children and old people.
Family planning is much less readily available in Africa than it was in Asia. By some estimates, a quarter of married women want contraceptives but cannot get them. That reflects reduced aid for family planning in the past 15 years and political ambivalence about cutting fertility in Africa itself. Uganda’s president once told a student gathering “your job is to produce children”; a Ugandan village chief says “to avoid having intruders grab our land we must keep producing many children.”
But cultural resistance, lack of contraception or weak political will cannot be the sole explanations. Malawi increased modern contraceptive use from 17% of women in 1998 to 42% in 2010 but fertility fell only a bit, so something else must be going on. To generalise wildly, there are two ways to control fertility: to have children quickly and then use contraception to stop having more, or to space out births, leaving longer intervals between each. Many Africans have traditionally used the second method—and may now be using contraception to make birth intervals even longer. The average lapse between first and second births in South Africa is almost four years. This method of control does cut fertility, but not as much as the other.
Mortality also plays a role. The demographic transition is the shift from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility—and infant mortality in Africa remains stubbornly high: 85 babies die for every 1,000 live births. True, that is half the level of the 1950s, but more than four times East Asia’s current rate. By increasing mortality, the spread of HIV/AIDS probably kept fertility higher than it would have been. Last, female education in Africa, like contraceptive use, has lagged behind the rest of the world, and there is a close connection between educating girls and having fewer children.
All this explains why the fall in African fertility has been modest so far. It implies the decline could accelerate if Africa were to get the conditions right. But it also suggests Africa’s demographic transition may end up different from the “gold standard” of Asia: it will be patchier (with occasional fertility stalls) and led by cities and a few countries (South Africa, Rwanda). It also means that until Africa reduces rural fertility, it will not reach replacement levels.

This is a very nice overview of a region of the world that is demographically (and in many other ways) very complex and for which there are unlikely to be easy answers for how to move forward productively.

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