Population dynamics – The forgotten issue of development policy

by Lilli Sippel, Franziska Woellert and Reiner Klingholz

Africa’s economy is booming. In many countries the middle class is growing along with its purchasing power. As a result, Africa has become attractive for investors: in only one decade foreign direct investment in the continent has increased nearly sevenfold. Yet the economic upswing is by no means benefiting Africa as a whole. Sub-Saharan Africa is not only still the poorest region in the world, but it also has to absorb an overwhelming population growth. This adversely affects the provision of food supplies, potable water and energy, and the availability of hospital beds, employment opportunities and schools, as well as the peaceful coexistence of people. The Berlin-Institute’s new discussion paper "The Challenges of Growth" explains how the demographic situation and the socioeconomic development of a country are linked.

Half a century ago the situation in East Asia was similar to what Sub-Saharan Africa is facing today: a high number of children and a low level of development. In those days few, if any, experts believed China could one day rise to become a world power or that the economy of most East Asian countries could grow at a record-breaking rate. The discussion paper "The Challenges of Growth" compares the development situation in Africa and Asia and investigates why today a country like South Korea is among the 15 wealthiest nations in the world and why the Sahel state Niger always holds the last place in development rankings. The reason behind this gap is that South Korean politics has taken the age structure of the population into account: for decades the Asian Tiger has been promoting family planning and investing in its large youth population, offering schooling and creating job opportunities. With birth rates sinking as a result, the proportion of the working-age population ultimately exceeded by far the number of economically dependent youngsters and elderly. In Niger, however, seven children per woman are born on average. For every adult there is a child under the age of 15 to be taken care of. Hardly anyone can read or write, and off-farm employment opportunities are rare. The strong population growth hinders all the country’s development efforts.

Since decades development policy has been circumventing the correlation between a high number of children and economic backwardness, ignoring the fact that high birth rates in a country may cause many development problems. For population policy is a controversial topic also on historical grounds and remains therefore a sensitive issue. Family size decisions are always taken on an individual level and on a voluntary basis. State family planning such as the Chinese one-child policy constitutes a breach of these human rights.

However, politics can shape the framework conditions under which women and men opt for more or less children. When for example a government promotes education and female employment, birth rates are likely to be directly affected. Indeed, educated and financially independent women tend to give birth to fewer children and at later stage. Concurrently, the broader participation of women on the labour market leads (contributes) to economic development.


Education leads to fewer children

Around the world well-educated women give birth to fewer children than less-educated women. This is especially true for women choosing to pursue secondary education. Professional opportunities offer alternative life paths to those strictly confined to the maternal role. In addition, more-educated women are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to have at their disposal information and access to family planning methods. Thus, they are in a better position to determine the number of their children and the time frame between pregnancies.

Alongside the number of children two further aspects of demographic development need to be taken into account in development cooperation: ageing of society and migration. On the one hand, by 2050 approximately 1.5 billion persons over 64 years of age are expected to live worldwide – three quarters of whom in today’s developing countries, which tend to lack functioning social and health systems. On the other hand, overall about 215 billion international migrants have at present left their country of origin. The majority move from one developing country to another, reason for which receiving countries increasingly find it extremely challenging to integrate migrants.


Sub-Saharan Africa remains young, while Europe turns grey

At present Sub-Saharan Africa is home to the world’s youngest population. Nonetheless, according to the latest UN forecast, in only forty years the age structure most likely will have changed markedly: the proportion of young persons will presumably decrease in favour of the working population. Sub-Saharan Africa might by then have an age structure equal to that of today’s Latin America and Caribbean nations, with the opportunity – theoretically – to reap enormous economic benefits. In the other world regions in the meantime population will age. In 2050 the number of elderly in Latin America and the Caribbean will in all likelihood be pro-portionally equal to that of Europe today. The East Asian region might age at an even faster rate than Europe, since the fertility rate among the Asian Tigers and China dropped rapidly.

Click here (PDF) to view the full German version of the study.

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Prof. Dr. Manuela Naldini, University of Turin
"Demographic change is not on the political agenda"