Dialogue 3 Demographic Destinies and African Destinies

The College of Humanities has held its third Dialogue series on Demographic Destinies and African Destinies.

It was jointly delivered by Professor John B. Casterline of Ohio State University, USA, and Dr Ayaga A. Bawah, of the Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS), University of Ghana.

In his opening remarks, the Provost of the College of Humanities, Professor Agyei-Mensah, who chaired the event noted that Africa’s demographic journey has been one of interest to the international community. He said that the heralding of the decline of both mortality and fertility in the 1960s and 1970s brought about the World Fertility Surveys (WFS) and subsequently, the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which provided scholars with information that led to a flourishing of scientific articles that chronicled Africa’s demographic situation and its likely trajectory into the future.

Setting the tone for his presentation, Dr Bawah quoted a 2015 Bank report that notes that demography is about the story of a people, and understanding that story provides opportunities to craft policies which take advantage of the potentials provided by the demographic structure to shape the future. He then proceeded to provide a summary of Africa’s demographic trends, within the context of the rest of the world. He noted that sub-Saharan Africa was experiencing the largest population growth in modern history, at an average of 2.7% per annum, and that if the current growth rates continue, some 2.8 billion people would be residing in Africa, representing a doubling of its current population.

Addressing the theme of the dialogue series, Demographic Destinies and African Destinies, Dr Bawah, noted that rapid declines in mortality and fertility have combined to produce a young population age structure showing a “bulge” generation in the working age groups, relative to those in the younger and older ages. This means reductions in the fraction of the population in the dependent ages (children, elderly), and that if the right policies are put in place to harness the large population in the working-age bracket, this can propel rapid economic growth, the phenomenon often referred to as the “demographic dividend”.

He noted that countries in Asia such as India and China which experienced this phenomenon in the 1990s and 2000s took advantage of the large numbers of people in the productive ages by investing in quality and technologically driven education, promoting savings and improving the quality of healthcare, thereby harnessing the technological ingenuity of the young people by promoting production, consumption and investments.  The result was rapid economic growth.

He however, cautioned, that the demographic dividend is not automatic and that if the right policies are not put in place the large army of young people could well become a burden. To this end, he noted that Africa’s destiny, indeed, might well depend on how it manages its growing population in the productive age groups.  

He proposed two major policy options that could be pursued to enjoy the dividend – policies that will take advantage of the supply-side potential increase in the labour through investments in education, healthy population, and providing a congenial atmosphere for savings. The second policy option is to put in place policies and programmes to accelerate reductions in mortality and fertility in order to further reduce the dependency ratio.

The second presentation was made by Professor John B. Casterline of Ohio State University, USA. He started by reflecting on the concept of “Destiny”, noting that it has ambiguous meaning. He noted that in some sense it portrays “Constraint”, meaning one’s fate is determined, and in another sense it portrays “Choice”, meaning one has a choice in determining his or her own future.

With these reflections, Professor Casterline enlarged on Dr Bawah’s summarization of Africa’s current demographic trends and provided insightful projections of the likely future of Africa’s population growth. He drew on data from the UN and presenting different likely scenarios projected Africa’s demographic future into 2100. He used data mainly five African countries – Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and DR Congo, to make his empirical projections and concluded that the main driving force of the historically high population growth rate in Africa is the continuation of the traditionally high fertility rates (children per woman) while child mortality has fallen dramatically.

Prof. Casterline noted that demographic trends in Africa during the past few decades has surprised and confounded many scholars, in particular the slow and erratic decline in fertility, in contrast to many other regions where fertility decline was rapid and steady once it got underway.    He argued that the main explanation for the puzzling fertility trends in the region is the continued attachment to desires for large families.  Niger is a notable example of the continuation of the desire for large families, and therefore the high and stable fertility rate for the country.   

Discussing of the consequences of Africa’s current demographic structure, Prof. Casterline cited four key areas – economic growth, human capital formation, resource stress (food, water) and political dynamics. With regards to economic growth he argued that generating jobs for larger and larger cohorts entering the working ages was likely to be a challenge. On human capital formation, he discussed its impact on schooling and health, arguing that under lower fertility the society is more able to educate children to secondary and advanced levels.  Regarding health, he argued again that lower fertility allows for higher per capita investment in maternal and child health.  With regards to resource stress, he noted that higher population growth had a negative impact on food security and water resources.  On the matter of political dynamics, he pointed to the recent surge of trans-national migration (huge streams of young people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean), with its attendant consequences.  He also speculated on consequences for civil unrest and resource completion.

Professor Casterline concluded his talk by arguing that all is not necessarily gloom, and that Africa has choices. He argued for vigorous implementation of family planning programmes in order to reduce fertility. He noted that existing scholarship has shown that rapid fertility will ease some of the challenges outlined. He opined also that those choices are both for individuals to make and also for governments to put in the right policies. He concluded his lecture by posing the question as to whether Africa's demographic destiny will surprise us yet again?