Population growth: A ticking time bomb for sub-Saharan Africa?

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  • 2011•11•29     Maastricht

    On the final day of October 2011, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) celebrated the birth of the 7 billionth human. Accompanied by a year-long partnership with National Geographic and the global 7 Billion Actions campaign , this was neither an empty celebration nor an exact science; 31 October was a symbolic date, a best guess with a margin of error of several weeks.

    The intent was to focus our attention on long-term issues worldwide, not only in terms of population but also regarding resources and sustainability — and, in turn, whether we are likely to miss or achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While Europe has its own demographic problems, they pale in comparison with those of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where, according to Dr. Thomas Ziesemer, a senior researcher and economist at UNU-MERIT, “population growth normally reduces GDP per capita”, thereby locking the region in a vicious circle. Dr Ziesemer is co-author of a recent UNU-MERIT working paper on investment, growth and consumption in African countries, which empirically analyses the extent to which public capital matters for economic growth.

    Ziesemer outlines what the paper brings to the important (albeit sensitive) population growth debate, explaining that the real problem is that there is no guarantee the world can achieve a zero growth rate.

    Future generations: locked in conflict?

    This trajectory is significant because the population of SSA is set to double within a generation, according to World Bank data from 2008. This implies diminishing opportunities and resources in SSA, particularly for the most vulnerable members of society: women, the poorly educated and the unemployed.

    It further implies more famines akin to the crisis in the Horn of Africa, exacerbated by expanding conflicts over shrinking resources. The growing conflict thesis is supported by another recent UNU working paper by UNU-WIDER researcher Markus Brückner, which finds that “for Sub-Saharan Africa there continues to be a highly significant average effect of population size and per capita income on civil war risk [...] The population size of the Sub-Saharan region has grown at a rate of about 2.5 per cent and is projected to double by 2036.”

    According to Brückner, “strategies that keep a tab on population growth in SSA will have pay-offs that extend beyond a simple income effect — they reduce the risk of civil war”. Ziesemer, meanwhile, counsels a greater focus on public investments, which would in turn encourage private investment and economic development while nudging down population growth rates.

    Moreover, Ziesemer points to the importance of gender equality and the provision of education for girls as well as boys. This involves at least two MDGs: “Achieve universal primary education” (Goal 2), and “Promote gender equality and empower women” (Goal 3). In Ziesemer′s opinion, “education should be for free. If you’re going to have primary and secondary schooling for everyone and later tertiary [university] education, then it should truly be for everyone, including girls”. Listen to more findings from Ziesemer in the podcast below.

    An urgent call for strong policy action

    Thanks to our ever greater connections, we are indeed “7 billion strong”, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared in October 2011. But in terms of policy — of government control and capacity for ensuring meaningful development, growth and progress — the margin of error is shrinking by the day.