By assuming that sub-Saharan Africa’s total fertility rate will decrease to 2.5 children per woman by 2050, the most recent population projections issued by the Population Reference Bureau
likely continue to underestimate fertility for Africa. Though northern Africa has significantly lowered fertility, sub-Saharan Africa’s TFR is still 5 children per woman. Achieving the levels projected by PRB or the United Nations
will largely depend on whether the conditions that led to past fertility declines
for other states can be established in sub-Saharan Africa.
Demographers have identified numerous factors associated with fertility decline, including increased education for females, shifting from a rural agricultural economy to an industrial one, and introduction of contraceptive technology
. Sub-Saharan Africa is only making slow progress in each of these areas.
Surveying Obstacles to Development
Primary school enrollment is up, but the pace of improvement is declining. Meanwhile, gender gaps persist: Enrollment for boys remains significantly higher than for girls. Girls’ education is associated with lower fertility, partly because education helps women take charge of their fertility and also because education influences employment opportunities. Increased female labor force participation has been shown to increase the cost of having children, and is therefore associated with initial fertility declines.
Disease is one wildcard for Africa that limits the utility of past models of demographic transition in the African context. HIV/AIDS is decimating sub-Saharan Africa’s adult workforce and creating shortages of teachers that will impede future efforts to boost primary school enrollment. According to the United Nations, the number of teachers in sub-Saharan Africa needs to double in the next five years to reach Millennium Development goals.
Development that would shift the region’s economies from agriculture to industry is also lagging. While several West African countries are seeing some gains, the African continent on the whole faces major structural impediments to development. In The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier points out that many of these countries may have “missed the boat” to attract investment and industry that would pull the region out of poverty, partly because the least developed countries are still not cost-competitive enough when compared with current centers of manufacturing, like China.
Finally, there remains a high unmet need for family planning. One in four women aged 15 to 49 who are married or in union –- and who have expressed an interest in using contraceptives — still do not have access to family planning tools. In general, maternal mortality remains high and adolescents in the poorest households are three times more likely to become pregnant and give birth than those in the richest households, according to the most recent UN Millennium Development Goals report.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Off the Radar?
Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from a lack of attention by the international community and lack of political capacity at home. Many countries in the region are plagued by civil strife and poor governance, and developed countries continue to fall short of development assistance pledges. There is not the same sense of urgency today among developed countries about the global population explosion as there once was. Cold War politics and the environmental and feminist movements motivated much of the study of fertility and funding of population programs during the second half of the 20th century. Attention by governments and NGOs sped the fertility transition among many countries.
Today, the world’s wealthiest countries are not concerned primarily with Africa’s problems, but rather are more concerned with their own population decline and with the national security implications of population trends in areas associated with religious extremism. The recession has further hindered the flow of development funds.
Fertility is the most difficult population component to predict, and demographers must draw on the experiences of other regions to inform assessments of Africa’s population patterns. Demographers seem to be overconfident that Africa’s fertility will follow the pattern of recent declines, particularly in Latin America, which were more rapid than Western Europe’s decline due to the diffusion of technology and knowledge.
Once states begin the demographic transition towards lower fertility and mortality, they have tended to continue, with few exceptions. Therefore, most projections for Africa assume the same linear pattern of decline will hold. Yet, the low priority of Africa’s population issues among the world’s wealthiest states, combined with shortfalls in education, development, and contraception, may mean that the demographic transition in Africa will be slower than predicted.
Projections are useful to give us a picture of what the world could look like if meaningful policy changes are made. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, prospects for these projections are dim.
Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba is the Mellon Environmental Fellow in the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. She is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Future Faces of War: Population and National Security.
Photo Credit: “Waiting,” ECWA Evangel Hospital, Jos, Nigeria, courtesy of flickr user Mike Blyth.