What hope for a second Africa?

Posted: 5 September 2000

Author: George Benneh

Author Info: Dr George Benneh is Professor of Geography and Resource Development at the University of Ghana and Chairman of the Ghana National Population Council. He is also co-editor of Sustaining the Future (United Nations University Press, 1996, £23.00).

Never before have so many nations tried to modernise in the face of such extraordinary population growth as is now occurring in Africa. Here, Professor George Benneh assesses the scale of the challenge.

Young children, Ghana© Nancy Durrell McKennaAfrican countries face many challenges in their relentless efforts to improve the quality of life of their people. The continent has entered the new millennium with 40 per cent of its population among the world's poor, subsisting on less than US$1 a day and with a declining per capita food production, an increasing public health crisis, a mounting external debt, a dwindling share of African exports in world trade, a degrading environment and an increasing incidence of political instability and internal strife. Indeed, Africa is increasingly being marginalised in the global economy.

This overall gloomy picture masks positive trends in a number of African countries, which give cause for optimism. Across the continent, policy reforms are contributing to dynamic economic growth. Authoritarian systems of government have been replaced by democratic systems. Greater political openness is strengthening the commitment of African governments to meeting the basic needs of their people. But the sustainable development of the continent will constitute one of the major global challenges in the new millennium.

Perhaps, the continent's development would have been easier if African governments did not have to contend with a rapidly growing population. Never before have so many nations tried to modernise in the face of such extraordinary population growth. With an annual population growth rate around 3 per cent, Africa is the fastest growing region in the world.

Demographic transition Nearly half of African countries recorded population growth rates of 3 per cent or more between 1988 and 1995. This means that their population would double in about 23 years. The Republic of Togo and Libya for example, are projected to double their population within a period of 19 years, growing at an annual rate of 3.6 per cent and 3.7 per cent respectively.

The rate of population growth is high because the total fertility rate - the average number of births per woman - remains exceptionally high, about six. On the other hand, improved health care and health delivery systems in African countries have led to a steady decline in the crude death rate.

In Ghana, crude death rate has declined from 22 per 1,000 in 1955 to 14 per 1,000 in 1990. Life expectancy at birth in Ghana has increased from 45 years in 1960 to 54 years for males and 57 years for females (1993 DHS). Population will continue to grow as long as there is no decline in fertility while the death rate continues to decline.

If the next stage of the demographic transition, characterised by low fertility and low death rates, is unduly delayed, it will have serious consequences for the continent's development.

Dwindling forestsAlready, the demands of escalating human numbers are exceeding the sustainable yield of life support systems. In one country after another, the pressure on croplands, forests, grasslands and water is excessive as shown by dwindling forests, eroding soils, desertification and falling water tables. The rate of deforestation varies from country to country. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, it was estimated that during the period 1981-85 about 290,000 hectares of the closed forest were being cleared annually.

As much as half of sub-Saharan African farmland is affected by soil degradation and erosion and up to 80 per cent of pasture and range areas show signs of degradation. Such estimates may be on the high side but they convey a notion of the scale of the problem until more reliable data are assembled. Deforestation and soil erosion are undermining the very natural resource base on which African farmers and their families depend for survival.

As a result of the high rates of population growth, the population of most African countries is characterised by a youthful age structure. According to UN estimates at least 45 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 in most African countries. Only in Gabon and South Africa is the percentage under age 15 less than 40.

In Ghana, typical of the region, an estimated 47 per cent of its population is younger than 15. This contrasts with 21 per cent of the United States population. This implies that African population has a built-in momentum, which will result in increased rate of population growth for some decades to come. Millions of Africans aged below 15 years will become tomorrow's workers and parents. They will add to the African population, however successful current efforts are in reducing total fertility in African countries, from the average of six to replacement level of two. Young children, GhanaYoung children, Ghana© Nancy Durrell McKennaThe youthful age structure makes the dependency burden in African countries high. While one working adult supports, on average, one person in Ghana, in a developed country such as Switzerland, two working adults support a child. Furthermore, an exceptionally large share of development resources goes to support the health, education and the wellbeing of children who are largely consumers and who hardly contribute anything to the economic growth of their countries.

Education for example, accounts for 20 to 25 per cent of government expenditure in many African countries. The percentage in Ghana is more than 30. In spite of the commitment of African governments to make basic education free and compulsory, the goal will become more illusive as the number of primary school-aged children escalates in the face of dwindling resources.

There is a real danger that some African countries, whose populations will double in the next few decades, may face falling living standards and scarcity of natural resources such as arable land, forests and water. This could drive them back into stage one of the demographic transition, marked by high fertility and death rates, a process referred to by demographers as demographic entrapment.

Emerging threat African countries also have to cope with the threat of AIDS. The impact of AIDS on the continent's population and development has not been fully assessed but the epidemic poses one of the major challenges the continent faces.

No African country is free from the AIDS epidemic. But AIDS has struck hardest in Southern, Central and Eastern Africa claiming the lives of the most productive segment of the countries' population - the young professionals in the prime of life - such as teachers, engineers, bankers. Experts warn that it may only be a few years before South Africa, Namibia and other southern African countries reach the 25 per cent adult infection rate unless strong prevention programmes are soon adopted.

While the economic and social impacts of AIDS are easy to determine, such as the heavy loss of some of the governmental investment in human capital and the plight of orphans, the effect of AIDS on the growth of Africa's population is still a matter of debate. However, according to some experts, life expectancy in some of the most infected countries may reduce by 20 years. See The Impact of AIDS

Internal migration African governments are also concerned with the constant stream of people including environmental refugees from the impoverished rural areas into towns and cities. Although Africa is the least urbanised region of the world, with two out of every three living in the rural areas; the continent is the most rapidly urbanising region of the world.

The urban population grew at an annual rate of six per cent annually between 1960 and 1990 and by at least five per cent in the 1990s. In 1960, only one city in Sub-Saharan Africa had a population of more than one million. Thirty years later 18 had grown to that size. In Swaziland, for example, the urban population was only four per cent of the total population in 1960. By 1990 it had increased to 33 per cent and it was projected to rise to 45 per cent by the year 2000. According to the World Bank estimates, by 2030 more than half of the sub-Saharan African population will be urban.

This phenomenal growth of urbanisation is exerting pressure on the infrastructure of these towns and cities. Provision of housing, water, sanitation sewerage and roads cannot catch up with the demand arising from the influx of migrants and the natural increase of the urban population. African cities typically have two populations - one well housed and provided with a variety of services and amenities and the other ill housed and excluded from many opportunities. It is the latter group who live in slums with serious environmental problems that pose a challenge to municipal and city authorities in Africa.

The increasing pressure on resources, especially arable land, the growing poverty in rural areas and the lack of accountability and transparency among some political leaders have contributed to making the African continent an epicentre of political instability and ethnic conflicts. These conflicts apart from causing death among innocent people mostly women and children result in large numbers of refugees.

The continent has more than a quarter of the world's refugees even though it accounts for less than a tenth of its population. Such massive displacement of people disrupts agricultural production in areas from where the refugees flee, and causes environmental damage in the receiving areas.

Tackling the problem Although, high rates of population growth were not considered as an important factor in the development equation of many African countries, there has been a significant shift in attitudes since African governments began to appreciate the impact this is having on their natural resources and on their capacity to meet the basic needs of their people.

In the last decade, and particularly since the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, there has been a steady growth in the number of countries that have established population commissions and family planning programmes. According to the UNFPA 1997 Annual Report, by the end of 1997, 23 African countries had officially adopted population policies and 11 others were in the process of doing so. Several countries are revising their population policies to include the goals and recommendations of the ICPD Programme of Action.

The success of countries which started implementing family planing programmes two or three decades ago gives the rest of Africa cause for optimism. Mauritius with fertility rate of 2.2 is fast approaching replacement level fertility - the number of births needed to replace the woman and her spouse. Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe have also experienced fertility reductions.

But given the magnitude and complexity of the development challenges facing the continent, time is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. The demographic transition in the developed countries occurred over a long period. It is therefore unrealistic to expect rapid reduction in total fertility in Africa in a record time. It will certainly require more than an increase in contraceptive prevalence rates, important though that is, to achieve it.

It will require provision of basic needs and services, introduction of environmentally-friendly technologies, proper management of fragile ecosystems, peace and stability and above all reduction in rural poverty. To achieve this comprehensive development agenda will require large financial investment. But above all it will require building coalitions and partnerships among local communities, government organisations, non-governmental organisations and international organisations who are involved in the continent's development.

Reduction in the rate of population growth will not be easy. But any progress, however small, is better than none since this would be translated in five or ten years time into big differences in the eventual total population.