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Is Africa’s population growth a problem?

Updated: Jun 19

Based on population makeup, Africa is the youngest continent in the world. 60% of the entire continent is below age 25, with Africa boasting every one of the world’s top ten youngest countries, the first being Niger with a median age of just 15.1 years. Looking to the future, the Population Reference Bureau estimates that by 2030 Africa will hold 42 % of the world’s youth, while the United Nations predicts that Africa will hold 25 % of the world population by 2050, accruing 1.2 billion of the projected 1.9 billion global births between 2020 and 2050. Africa, in other words, is a young continent; the result of which will be the continued explosion of its population and, along with it, its prominence, too. As a matter of fact, forecasts predict a rapid economic expansion in Africa similar in magnitude to its rapid population growth: the International Policy Food Research Institute predicts that Africa will hold just one low-income country by 2050, while another estimate suggests that sub-Saharan Africa will amass a total GDP of $29 trillion by that same year, more than what the United States and European Union currently possess, combined.

While optimistic forecasts may suggest that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the developing region, not all economists are on board with the population boom’s benefits. Some argue that African lawmakers must adopt policies of “population stabilization,” believing that the continent’s rapid birthing rate counteracts global efforts towards “sustainable development.” Joseph Chamie with Yale University, for example, contends that, “The paramount issue of the 21st century is the stabilization of world population… especially in Africa, by far the most rapidly growing region.” Chamie argues that “Policymakers must aim for population stabilization,” since rapid population growth jeopardizes “sustainable development goals, including ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” While Chamie wrote this in 2016, the essayist Jonathan Swift wrote a satire piece advocating for population controls back in 1729, a piece that echoes eerily similar to Chamie’s logic. 

Consider the mere title for Swift’s satirical essay: “A Modest Proposal: For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.” “A Modest Proposal” is considered a hallmark not only of the satirical style of writing but of the counter-argument to those advocating for restricting population growth, yet it’s a classic that Chamie flagrantly, and without a hint of irony, violates as he advocates for “population stabilization.”

The idea of “preventing the children of poor people in Ireland” ties directly to Chamie’s, and many other economists’, beliefs in “stabilizing” population growth in Africa, apparently for the entire world’s benefit in the lofty name of “ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” It goes to show that some old ideas, even those as despised as Malthusianism, never die. Not only do they stay alive under new modern rhetoric such as “sustainable development” and “population stabilization,” but they continue to hardly possess any grain of truth.

Consider the fact that Africa has possessed a higher rate of population growth than any other continent roughly over the last twenty years, with the continent’s population growing by over 78 % since the turn of the century. Also since 2000, however, sub-Saharan Africa’s share of population living in extreme poverty has declined from 56 % to 35 % and its GDP per capita has climbed by 77.8 % as well, a near one-to-one tradeoff with the continent’s population growth. Clearly, the continent’s population growth has not laid much of a dent on sustainable development or poverty reduction. If anything, it has seemingly contributed to an increasingly prosperous Africa over the century’s opening decades.

Indeed, as population grows, while there is the need to feed more mouths, there is also the opportunity for a larger labor force and the possibility of new minds introducing new innovation and inventions that increase the productivity and output of critical goods. If Chamie were writing thousands of years ago, would he, too, predict that Earth’s population explosion from 232 million in 0 AD to close to 8 billion today would be detrimental to peace and prosperity? As the world’s population has skyrocketed, so has its standard of living, and presumably, so has its level of peace as well. So is Africa’s population growth a problem? Let history, statistics, and satire speak for itself.

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