“African elites have long had the perception that rapid population growth was not an issue because of the vastness of Africa, abundance of resources, relatively low population densities and, more recently, the threat of HIV/AIDS,” but as rapid population growth becomes a more urgent problem across the continent, that view is increasingly falling out of favor, said World Bank lead demographer John May in a recent interview with the African Press Organization
. As governments work to improve their population programs, the World Bank is adopting “new demography” principles that examine age structures, dependency ratios, human capital investments, and the demographic dividend
to craft cross-sectoral approaches to population policy.
Current demographic trends, the result of reduced infant and child mortality and slowly falling fertility rates, will double the population of Africa by 2036 if left unaddressed, said May. The security implications of this population growth are readily apparent. Rapid population growth has been identified as a factor in increasing resource scarcity and can help lead to conflict. In Sudan, for example, the pressures of overgrazing, desertification, ongoing drought, and escalating competition between pastoralist and agriculturalist communities have contributed to violence. Kenya presents a similar scenario: Rapid and uneven population growth led to land scarcity in the late 1980s, exacerbating latent political and ethnic tensions. The violent conflict that erupted between 1991 and 1993 was fueled in part by natural resource scarcity. More recently, insecure land tenure, shaky property rights, and competition over natural resources have triggered violence across East Africa. Population pressures also play a part, and some argue that demographically-induced land scarcity was at the heart of violence in Kenya earlier this year.
May lamented that far less attention has been paid to population than to humanitarian crises, good governance, and climate change—despite compelling evidence that population growth is likely to negatively impact the chances for peace. Sexual and reproductive health, for example, form 20 percent of the global disease burden, and there is compelling evidence that good reproductive health leads to poverty reduction. He reminds us that demographic issues are inextricably tied to larger development issues, and must be addressed together.
Some countries have successfully reduced fertility rates, May noted. In the 1960s, the Tunisian government introduced a program to reduce fertility rates through increased education for girls, government provision of family planning services, and legal reforms to increase the economic status of rural women and girls. Today, the country boasts a replacement-level fertility rate. Efforts to improve gender equity are highly effective in reducing unsustainable population growth: “It could be argued that the population issue in sub-Saharan Africa is in essence a gender issue,” said May, who argued that “[e]conomic and social development is of course the best contraceptive.”
“The task ahead is huge and difficult, however some concrete results have already been obtained,” said May. He offered a simple suggestion to governments wondering how to craft population policies: “let people, especially women, decide for themselves and…provide them with the means to exert their choices.”