Population Growth in Africa: Asset or Threat?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — More people younger than the age of 20 live in Africa than in any other continent; experts predict its population will double to two billion by 2050.

Could This Population Growth Be an Asset?

“Development policy in Africa assumes that ‘less population equals more development,’” remarks Obadias Ndaba, Regional Director of the World Youth Alliance Africa. The Western world initially proposed this theory and over time, the world accepted it as fact.

Researcher Andrews Atta-Asamoah, arguing for a stemming of population growth, highlights the following incidents: the young al-Shabab fighters in Somalia, the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, the violence led by the Mungiki sect in Kenya and the growth of several Islamist groups in Mali.

In the most violent cases, he notes, youth served as the manpower. To Asamoah, a “poorly managed, young population” threatens stability and peace in Africa.

Nbada, however, counters this claim. To treat people as manageable, as simply mouths to feed, diminishes the value of human capital. Governments should view people as “minds to think and innovate for a better future,” because investment in this capital could offer high returns.

Historical Claims Against Population Growth

In the 1950’s, poverty in the streets of Hong Kong seemed unmanageable. Without natural resources, speculations of Hong Kong’s demise ran rampant. One newspaper labeled the city as “dying.” The Chinese government felt as though the rapid population growth underscored the deeper problems plaguing the city.

Yet, the city never collapsed under the burden of a growing population.

Today, it boasts the eighth highest annual per capital income in the world ($42, 748) if separated from mainland China. The population grew to 7,026,400 with an estimated 6,460 people per square kilometer. In total, the population increased six times from its size in 1950.

How did Hong Kong manage to defy the natural assumptions about overpopulation?

Where Should Aid Go?

Nbada asserts aid should be directed toward education and business rather than birth control. To her, the relationship between population size and development becomes too simplified. “Authentic development” occurs when governments and NGOs invest in the people, offering opportunities to learn and become independent.

Birth control, Nbada contends, cannot fully address poverty in the developing world.

Ncebakazi Nggwane, 25, recently graduated from the University of Cape Town. She notes the difficulty youth face in finding a job, and believes the government should do more to create employment opportunities. A youth wage subsidy, Nggwane remarks, could motivate companies to hire recent graduates. Many of her unemployed friends resorted to crime to make a living.

Atta-Asamoah affirms this, noting “unless political leadership offers young people something to live for, social stresses such as unemployment can make them easy prey to those who offer them something to die for.”

Could Population Growth Help the Economy?

Economist Jean-Michel Severino views the rise in working-age adults as a benefit, rather than burden.

During recent decades in Africa, the burden of the younger generations on adults pulled economic growth rates down. Today, as youth graduate or reach the age for full-employment, the potential for a workforce grows.

Atta-Asamoah regards slums as “lawless enclaves” where desperation forces youth into crime. Servino, however, treats urbanization as “one of the most powerful growth engines” in the world. To this economist, a highly dense population offers the opportunity for greater domestic markets.

Local demand grows with the population and as a result, more businesses must develop to meet it.

A young but aging population, he notes, favors economic growth far more than a declining population of working adults with “more elderly dependents to support.” This population pattern, seen in Europe and Japan, poses a greater threat to economic growth the situation in Africa.

A Difficult Debate

A growing youth population could further destabilize Africa, escalate violence, and increase the threat of living in slums; it could also drive the economic growth needed in this continent. Many note the future rests in the hands of the youth, but the amount and type of aid often confirms the path taken. The younger generations could serve as an asset, but only if the government offers meaningful support.

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: BBC, The African Executive
Photo: Dark Roasted Blend

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