Unless African countries adopt effective family planning programmes, the continent's burgeoning population is more likely to yield a demographic disaster than a demographic dividend, a specialist in population issues warned last week in a New York Times commentary.
Eugene Linden, author of several books on the environment, argued that African countries would have to achieve “unheard of economic growth” in order to reduce poverty rates in their rapidly expanding populations.
“Even maintaining the economic status quo — a very low bar — is beyond reach,” he wrote.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates, for example, that while up to 12 million young people enter the continent's workforce each year, Africa as a whole creates an average of only 3.7 million jobs a year.
Given projected population increases, Mr Linden said in an interview with the Sunday Nation, there is virtually no chance of achieving the demographic dividend, which is defined as economic advances resulting from a growing youth population.
The promising trend toward a higher percentage of working-age persons and a lower percentage of dependents has been under way for some time, Mr Linden noted.
“So the demographic dividend should have have happened by now,” he said.
But poverty rates have not fallen in most African countries, and “development efforts, begun in earnest in the 1960s, have gone nowhere,” Mr Linden commented.
The challenge of making African societies less poor is highlighted by the latest UN population projections.
In Kenya, 2.6 million of the country's population of about 46 million are currently categorised as food insecure.
Conflicts over land have simultaneously intensified due to drought.
And by 2050, according to UN estimates published last week, Kenya's population will have almost doubled.
The country already needs to produce a million jobs per year to keep pace with its expanding youth bulge.
But Kenya is falling well short of that mark, leading President Uhuru Kenyatta to warn last year that “the crisis of mass youth unemployment is a threat to the stability and prosperity of Africa, and it can amount to a fundamental and existential threat”.
Strife-torn and hunger-plagued Somalia is also forecast to experience a huge increase in its human numbers — from close to 15 million today to 36 million by mid-century.
South Sudan, ravaged by civil war and threatened with famine, is likewise expected to double its population by 2050.
INVESTMENT IN YOUTHS
Mr Linden cites a close correlation between states classified by a Washington think tank as “most fragile” and those with exceptionally high rates of population growth.
The African Union and some international leaders are meanwhile calling attention to the economic gains that population trends could potentially produce in Africa.
The AU has officially designated 2017 as the year of “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investment in Youth”.
Such pronouncements do typically acknowledge that the dividend will not be forthcoming unless governments provide much broader access to education, health care and job training.
While such investments are necessary, Mr Linden argues, they are not sufficient.
The dividend will also not be realised if governments fail to implement successful family planning programmes, he says.
Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, director of the UN Population Fund, offered the same perspective in a speech on the sidelines of the AU Summit in Ethiopia in February.
“If you don’t have a working family planning programme,” Dr Osotimehin declared on that occasion — four months prior to his death — “it is unthinkable to reap the demographic dividend.”
SCARCITY OF RESOURCES
Mr Linden presents the options in stark terms.
If African governments don't act to control populations, “nature will do it for them”, he declared in the June 21 interview.
Disease, drought and other impacts of climate change, along with bloody conflicts over dwindling resources, are likely to thin populations that continue to expand uncontrollably, Mr Linden predicted.
There are indications of a growing recognition among powerful Africans of the need for population control.
In April, the Kenyan government co-hosted the first annual Africa-China Conference on Population and Development.
Connections were made at the event in Nairobi between China's economic take off and its stringent approach to population control.
Opposition to family planning programmes persists in Africa, however, on cultural, religious and political grounds.
Some politicians charge that calls for population control amount to expressions of “neo-colonialism”.
Mr Linden acknowledges the negative interpretations that can be given to the term “population control”.
He says “it sounds like something that somebody is doing to you”.
But African leaders must come to realise, he adds, that “in every case, it's actually something you should do for yourself".