“The whole push for population control or to stabilize populations in Africa in the ’70s and the ’80s mostly came out of the West,” said Eliya Zulu of the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) in this interview with ECSP. Then new research brought to light the fact that many women in Africa actually wanted to control their fertility themselves, but they didn’t have access to family planning.
“It kind of put the African leaders who really didn’t want to talk anything about fertility control and so on in a fix,” Zulu said. “Because all of sudden now it was the African women themselves who are saying we need these services – it was not an imposition from the West.”
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Zulu said that part of what he does at AFIDEP is “try to get African countries to think about the future.” Current economic growth in parts of Africa simply can’t match population growth, but improving access to family planning and child/maternal health infrastructure can greatly reduce fertility rates – and quickly.
“The question for Africa is: Are we going to be ready? And we need to prepare,” said Zulu. “For that to happen it’s not just about saying ‘let’s have fewer children.’ I think we also need to do this from a social developmental perspective where we also look at ways in which we can improve the quality of the population, empower women, invest in education, and so on.”
Four Factors of Success
There are several factors that are critical for successful family planning and child/maternal health efforts, said Zulu: strong political leadership, sustained commitment over time, financial investment (research has shown that over 90 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford contraceptives), and strong accountability mechanisms for monitoring performance of programs and use of resources.
“There are a number of countries that have shown that, even with the limited resources that Africa has, that with all the problems that Africa has, if you really emphasize those four factors that I mentioned, you can actually achieve very, very positive results,” Zulu said.
Rapid Urbanization and the Growth of Urban Poverty
Rapid urbanization is one of Africa’s biggest challenges, said Zulu. “Africa is the least urbanized region of the world now, but it’s growing at the highest rate.” If you look at historical examples from the West and Asia, “urbanization is supposed to be a good thing; urbanization has been a driver of economic development,” he said, but “the major characteristic of urbanization in Africa has been the rapid growth of urban poverty.”
“If the economies are not going to develop the capacity to absorb this population and create enough jobs for them, there’s going to be chaos, because you can’t have all these young people without having jobs for them,” said Zulu. “The challenge for many African governments is how to have sustainable urbanization and how to transform our cities into agents of development.”