The other day I came across some stats that got me thinking. It is apparent that at the current rate of population growth, Africa’s population will double in the next half century (Even after having discounted for malaria and – according to the Economist – the over-estimated AIDS figures). This can either be a blessing or a curse.
It could be a blessing due to the fact the non-viability of some African states is because they are too sparsely populated and do not have big enough internal markets to support robust economies or generate enough revenue in terms of taxes to pay for effective government. Therefore, a big population would bring more good than harm. I am not saying that the solution to Africa’s poverty and lack of development is a higher population growth; I am just making the observation that populous Ethiopia is more viable as a sovereign state than huge but thinly populated Chad or Niger.
The negative effects, however, are more real and immediate. As it stands, Africa cannot feed its entire population – hence its current reliance on food imports and relief to meet the balance. Furthermore, due to rather dismal economic performance over the last four decades, the population growth rate has far outstripped economic growth. As a consequence, Africa is the only region in the world where per capita incomes have declined since the seventies. The ideal solution to this problem would be to simply increase the rate of economic growth to surpass that of population, but this cannot just be made possible with a magic wand. It will take time.
The situation therefore calls for a clear and well formulated population policy. If Africa is to take off economically and improve its deplorable average living standards, it has to arrest the high rate of population growth (continental average fertility is more than 5 children per woman, the world average is below 3). This need not be some China-like thing, I believe that with the right incentives to families and insistence on longer and better education of girls the situation can be changed. Studies have shown that, on average, better educated women tend to have fewer, healthier and better educated children.
In the future though, with proper planning, I think it is in the continent’s best interest to have a big population. By some estimates, Africa can support upwards of 1.5 billion people with its 28% arable land (China has 13%). A big and economically vibrant population will not only be invaluable in reducing the continent’s over-reliance on foreign trade (internal trade accounts for paltry 10%) but also for strategic security purposes.