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Sub-Saharan Africa

Change people’s minds

by Vera Dicke

In brief

Mother feeding her child in a refugee camp in Southern Sudan

Mother feeding her child in a refugee camp in Southern Sudan

Population growth will cause problems for a number of countries, yet a lack of political will and cultural factors still make it difficult to implement ­measures to stem such growth. Experts say a paradigm change is needed.

According to UN statistics, more than seven billion people inhabit the earth since late October, with around 216,000 more being born each day. While the populations of industrialised countries are shrinking, the population of sub-Saharan Africa will double or even triple within 30 years because the fertility rate there is still around 4.5 children per woman. So­cial services, the labour market and resources in these countries are not fit to serve such a large population.

At an international conference on population growth in sub-Saharan Africa held by the German Foundation for World Population (DSW) in Berlin in late October, all participants agreed that it is high time politicians did some­thing. Boniface K’Oyugi, the head of Kenya’s Coordinating Agency for Population and Development, called for more data on population development to be collected, in order to force decision makers to take this important topic into account. Wolfgang Lutz, head of the World Population Programme at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), would like to see this happen at the international level too. Population growth has an impact on climate change and poverty, which, for good reasons, are high on the inter­national agenda.

It is not only politicians who need to be convinced. K’Oyugi and Lutz agree that there will only be fewer babies if people have a change of mind. Politicians cannot order them to have fewer chil­dren; rather, they have to understand the motives, such as the desire to have many children in view of high infant mortality. To convince mothers and fathers of better planning families, one must give them good reasons. Children are more likely to survive if they have fewer siblings, for instance, and women live longer if they have fewer babies.

Cultural obstacles

However, Tirsit Grishaw from DSW Ethiopia points out that such arguments alone will not do because cultural factors work in favour of large families: in male-dominated societies, lots of children are consid­ered a blessing. While women recognise the related problems because they experience them first hand, many do not have a say over their bodies and their number of children.

According to the DSW, women need to be put in a position – through education, for example – to say “no” and to exercise their rights. Birth rates would then drop significantly. A report pub­lished by the DSW and the Berlin Institute for Population and Development with the title “Africa’s demographic challenges” argues this case too. Once women get secondary education, the number of children they bear decreases. Otherwise, they tend to marry young and have their first baby while they are still teenagers.

Demographic bonus

Lower population growth is beneficial in economic terms too. Referring to several Asian and Latin American countries, Reiner Klingholz, one of the authors of the study, illustrates that decreasing ­birth rates can create a demographic dividend and stimulate development. The reason is that many gainfully employed people then have to take care of relatively few dependent old and young people. The result is economic progress, provided there are enough jobs. If the demo­graphic dividend is used prudently to build social security systems, it will even allow nations to cope with ageing once the ­generation that is active today becomes pensioners.

So how should leaders react to population growth? Societies in developing countries are mostly made up of young people. In order to utilise their potential and to avoid conflicts, the youth must be involved in political, economic and so­cial matters. Bettina Silbernagel from the GIZ suggests setting up youth parliaments and promoting young people in other ways too.

Vera Dicke