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Changing Demographics in Africa

September 22, 2009


According to New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of “the grimmest risks to human life” in Africa is not living in a war zone but having children [“This Mom Didn’t Have to Die,” 17 May 2009]. He writes:

“One of the most dangerous things an African woman can do is become pregnant. … According to the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality in the world, and in several African countries, 1 woman in 10 ends up dying in childbirth. It’s pretty clear that if men were dying at these rates, the United Nations Security Council would be holding urgent consultations, and a country such as[Sierra Leone] would appoint a minister of paternal mortality. Yet half-a-million women die annually from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth without attracting much interest because the victims are typically among the most voiceless people in the world: impoverished, rural, uneducated and female.”

Unfortunately, females are often undervalued in societies struggling to survive. The Economist claims that the poorer the circumstances the greater the chances are that families will have girls rather than boys. If true, it only exacerbates the situation by making girls even less valuable than boys [“Sons and mothers,” 11 July 2009 print issue]. The article reports:

“That mother knows best is no secret. That her reproductive organs also know best may come as more of a surprise. But that is what two evolutionary biologists, Robert Trivers and Dan Willard, hypothesized nearly four decades ago. Boys, they reasoned, will thrive reproductively when they have grown big and strong in resource-rich environments. Otherwise, they will do badly. Girls, by contrast, will do reasonably well across the board and thus have a comparative advantage over their brothers in poorer situations. Parents, meanwhile, have a genetic incentive to see their progeny do well. Give a mother abundant resources, then, and her body should favor sons. Place her in difficult conditions and she should have more daughters. The Trivers-Willard theory has been tested with success in several species of wild animal. Showing it to be true in people, however, has proved difficult. But a paper just published in Biology Letters by Thomas Pollet of the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, and his colleagues makes a brave attempt to do so.”

To test the theory, Dr. Pollet studied polygamist families in Rwanda. He reasoned that if the theory holds true that, all other things being equal, women from monogamous marriages should have more sons than women from polygamous marriages and that earlier wives should have more sons than later wives.

“As the researchers suspected, when all other things were equal mothers in monogamous marriages had [the] most sons: 101 for every 100 daughters. Those who were the first wives of polygamists scored similarly. Wives who were ‘third or lower order’, though, had only 94 sons for every 100 daughters. Of course, all other things are rarely equal. The team also found and corrected for the facts that a mother’s age and which province she lived in affected the sex ratio of her children. Her level of education, whether she lived in a town or the countryside, and whether she owned the house she lived in did not, however, seem to make any difference (not that a lower-order wife is ever likely to own a house). What the researchers did not correct for was the father’s age. And previous studies have shown that older fathers are relatively more likely to beget daughters. So part of the effect Dr Pollet has discovered might be caused by the fact that, obviously, a man is older when he takes a second or subsequent wife than when he marries for the first time. This age effect, too, could be ascribed to the Trivers-Willard hypothesis if, say, sperm quality falls with age. But it would be a separate phenomenon from what is going on in the mother.”

Having more women in the world is not a bad thing and “evolution has led to women, but not men, getting progressively beautiful, according to scientists” [“Women getting more beautiful, say scientists,” The Telegraph, 26 July 2009]. And, according to the article, “researchers found that attractive women have more children than their less attractive counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female.” Since attractive couples are more likely to have girls than boys, researchers argue, girls are getting prettier while men “remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.” Sorry men! One would think, however, that increasing attractiveness would make women more appreciated by the shallower gender; but that doesn’t seem to be happening. In many traditional cultures around the world, women continue to struggle for their rightful place in society. Africa is one of the regions in which women are still fighting for rights.


The Economist reports, however, that “Africa is undergoing a ‘demographic transition’. … African women are now following their sisters in Asia and the rich world by bearing steadily fewer children” [“The lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah,” 29 August 2009 print issue]. The article continues:

“Admittedly, Africa is lagging behind Asia by about 20 years, and the continent’s fertility rates are still high, but the trend is clear. In Mozambique in 1950 a woman had, on average, 6.5 children over her lifetime; now she has five. In Ethiopia the figure has dropped from seven to five; in Côte d’Ivoire it has almost halved from its peak; in Botswana it has more than halved. The only exceptions are war-torn places such as Congo.”

The article admits that one of the factors affecting the decreasing birthrate is HIV/AIDS, which is killing off both fathers and mothers during childbearing years. It also reports, however, that, when people leave rural areas for the city, birthrates also decline dramatically. And, according to the article, Africa is “is part of the fastest urbanization in history. Africa’s rush to the cities is not just changing the location of Africa’s populations, it is changing their structure, too.” People are hoping that Africa will be able to take advantage of what is known as the “demographic dividend.”

“In Latin America and Asia this transition yielded a huge economic gain, called the ‘demographic dividend’. As birth rates decline, the proportion of children shrinks and the working-age population bulges, as is happening now in Africa. That can kick-start industrialization. Factories employ low-skilled farmers fresh from the country, which increases productivity and prosperity, which creates demand, and so it goes on. Some studies reckon that demography explains as much as a third of Asia’s economic growth. It is this opportunity that Africa must prepare for. The ‘dividend’ is not automatic. It has to be earned. A productive, healthy workforce could lift large parts of Africa out of poverty, but an expanding cohort of jobless, idle and frustrated young men will create political and social instability. Just think of the riots and deaths sparked by rampaging hordes of youths in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya.”

In order to take advantage of the demographic dividend, African countries will need new leaders that fight corruption, become wise stewards of national resources, and invest in their country’s human capital. Africa is the final stop for the industrialization train; but no one knows exactly when it will arrive. The article concludes:

“There are plenty of reasons to fear the worst. Poor farming and environmental degradation could lead to hunger, poverty and strife. Instability, corruption and family breakdown could break the cycle of industrialization and growing productivity. Hence the need to get African policy right: a green revolution to keep rural hunger and poverty at bay; peace and contraception to keep the demographic transition on track; education and better governance to create a workforce able to exploit the chances on offer; and services to help people in slums like Sodom and Gomorrah [near Accra, Ghana]join the formal economy. Such desires are hardly new—indeed each stands on its own merits. What is new is the sense of urgency. The demographic dividend comes around only once. Eventually the bulge of energetic, working-age people becomes a bulge of dependent, elderly ones. The transition will pass in a couple of generations—the blink of a demographic eye. Africa must not fumble its best chance at prosperity.”

In a companion article [“The baby bonanza,” 29 August 2009 print issue], The Economist provides more details about Africa’s declining birthrates:

“In 1990 the continent’s total fertility rate was over six, compared with two in East Asia. By 2030, according to United Nations projections, the total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa could fall to three. By 2050 it could be below 2.5. It is surely no coincidence that the past 15 years have seen Africa’s fastest-ever period of economic growth. Africa, exceptional in so many ways, does not seem to be an exception to the rule that, as countries get richer, they experience a demographic transition. … A fast-growing, economically active population provides the initial impetus to industrial production; then a supply of new workers coming from villages can, if handled properly, enable a country to become more productive. China and East Asia are the models. On some calculations, demography accounted for about a third of East Asia’s phenomenal growth over the past 30 years.”

Many people in the development field still look to Africa’s future with some hope. Companies are sitting on the sidelines waiting to rush in to help Africa develop, but they are waiting for less violence, less corruption, and a more viable workforce. The article rightly asserts that even in a resource rich continent like Africa, “Africa’s people are its biggest asset.” There is not much time to get things right, the article argues. There are too many young people (“one African in two is a child”) who need to be educated, trained, and cared for in African countries right now.

“Millions of children already live rough in towns and cities. Prostitution and death await the poorest girls. The boys take to glue and crime. Africa has the highest rate of child disablement in the world. Some think 10-20% may be disabled, a staggering number, but since they are rarely seen in clinics and schools that is hard to verify. Pediatricians suspect some are killed in infancy—not Darwin’s natural selection but the dispensing of an extra mouth to feed. Physical stunting is probably rising.”

Whether Africa’s huge youth bulge establishes a foundation for industrialization and a brighter future or sets the continent ablaze with conflict rests entirely with the leaders and people of Africa. The rest of the world has patiently demonstrated a willingness to help, but corrupt and short-sighted leaders have undermined efforts at every turn. The article concludes:

“Demography needs to be put in perspective. It is not destiny. Africa needs a green revolution; more efficient cities; more female education; honest governments; better economic policies. Without those things, Africa will not reap its demographic dividend. But without the transition that Africa has started upon, the continent’s chances of achieving those good things would be even lower than they are. Demography is a start.”

It looks like the world is about to claw its way out of the current recession. That means the rest of the world is about to charge forward once again and Africa could be left in the dust of progress if it doesn’t quickly change course. Some nations undoubtedly will, but many others have shown few signs of even trying. I’ve noted before that, thanks to unnatural boundaries established by colonial states, not all African nations are equally endowed with resources. Some states are likely to be permanent wards of the international community because they are simply incapable of establishing a sustainable economy. Other states, however, have no such excuse. Companies like mine stand ready to help create sustainable economies when conditions permit.

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