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The Demographic Determinants of Africa’s Changing Global Position

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In September 2015, the member states of the United Nations (UgN) adopted a global development agenda for the upcoming 15 years consisting of 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN Secretary-General praised the SDGs for their “universal, transformative, and integrated agenda” that foreshadowed a “historic turning point for our world”.

In comparison with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set the tone for debates and actions in the field of international development at the beginning of the 21st century, the new 2030 Agenda introduced a more universalist perspective with its core lying in the ideal of sustainability. Within the framework of the MDGs, developed states were expected to transfer resources and know-how to developing countries. The goals themselves were concentrated around the difficulties specific for conditions of underdevelopment and they formed a part of the development paradigm “based on ideas of benevolent charity, humanitarian cosmopolitanism, and/or historical injustice”.

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In the 2030 Agenda, this approach is still present to a certain degree. However, many SDGs are now relevant for countries regardless of their level of development and they stretch across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. The real paradigm shift lies in the realisation that developed states are not void of development challenges, especially when long-term sustainability is seen as the most important determinant of development. In the new agenda, irresponsible production and excessive consumption as well as unbalanced global structures of power and financing are elevated to the significance of poverty and hunger, turning the SDGs into the harbingers of a form of institutional cosmopolitanism.

The root causes of global sustainability challenges are identified in global structures, which calls for measures aimed at finding a new balance. In comparison with the Millennium Declaration, adopted in September 2000, the 2030 Agenda also refocuses attention from foreign assistance to domestic development. The effectiveness of international aid in lifting countries out of poverty has been often questioned in the last decades, especially when the value of foreign assistance is weighted against the potential of internal resources to address inequalities and promote sustainable development. The paradigm shift between the two described global development agendas is indicative of the changing global position of Africa, the continent where the majority of countries classified as least developed are to be found. African countries’ domestic political, economic and social tendencies and developments are transformed into issues of global significance.

This paper will concentrate on one very specific trend with potentially strong global implications, namely Africa’s rapidly growing number of inhabitants and dramatically increasing proportion of the world’s population. I will argue that these trends have a potential to transform Africa’s geopolitical and economic position in today’s polycentric world, despite the relative lack of attention devoted to them on global fora and in specialised literature. The first part of the article contains a historical overview of African demographics, followed by a population outlook. In the second part, the economic, social and environmental implications of demographic change are discussed. Finally, Africa’s changing geopolitical position is scrutinised through a look at the evolution of EU-Africa relations.

The population of Africa had been for centuries characterised by low population density. Around the year 1500, it had on average 2 inhabitants per square kilometre which increased to only about 4 inhabitants per square kilometre by year 1900. The 1920s have seen the establishment of an initial base for future population growth with measures being taken to fight endemic diseases on the continent. By the 1950s, increased healthcare provision had been coupled by enhanced female education, which had grown to be the single most important factor in the decline of child mortality in Africa.

Available UN Population Division data show a constant decline in under-five mortality rates from the 1950s. The decline appears to have slowed down temporarily in the 1980s and 1990s, which may be attributed to cuts in public spending on healthcare and education as a result of structural adjustment especially in the 1980s, as well as to a surge in HIV infections in the 1990s which influenced life expectancy and mortality rates, including under-five mortality. From the end of the 1990s a recovery in the drop of under-five mortality is evident.

In the same time period, fertility rates had been slightly increasing, which can be attributed to the improving health situation of the population. Fertility rates peaked around 1970, remained stable for roughly a decade, and started to gradually drop from the 1980s onwards.

The decrease in fertility has, however, been slower than expected. This fact is well demonstrated by the corrections of fertility estimates in respective editions of the UN World Population Prospects. The 2000 revision put the medium projection of the fertility rate in Africa in 2045-2050 to 2.39 children per women. To the contrary, the 2017 revision puts the same estimate to 3.09. To the contrary, in all other world regions fertility rates are projected to be dropping faster in the 2017 revision than in the 2000 revision.

The synergy between improving healthcare provision and expanding female education has thus caused mortality rates to drop, while fertility rates at first increased and started to gradually drop with a considerable time lag. This enabled demographic growth on the continent to step on an exponential trajectory. This phenomenon can be best explained by the theory of demographic transition, which describes the transition from a high birth/high death demographic equilibrium to a low birth/low death equilibrium through a high birth/low death transition phase. In the first phase of the demographic transition, mortality rates drop sharply while fertility rates remain stable, creating exceptionally large cohorts, which drive population growth in subsequent decades. In the second phase, fertility rates start to drop with a certain time lag.

Africa was the last continent to enter this transition. While most developed countries have already completed their demographic transition, and most of Latin America and East Asia are in advanced stages where fertility rates have already sharply dropped, Africa’s demographic transition is only starting to enter its second phase. While a small number of African countries are far ahead in the transition, with fertility rates that are below replacement levels, many others have exhibited significant delays in the transition in the past 10 years. Some countries are still showing very little movement along the natural transition and are stuck at very high fertility rates. The most notable examples are Niger, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali, where a very high average fertility of over 5.9 children per woman is still prevalent.

As a result of its ongoing and rather protracted demographic transition, the African continent has seen considerable recent population growth and is expected to add another over 3 billion people to the world population by 2100, when its demographic transition is expected to be over. As opposed to 1.05 billion inhabitants in 2010, the UN Population Division estimates Africa’s population to reach 2.5 billion in 2050, which is further projected to increase to 4.5 billion by the end of the 21st century. The continent’s population could thus quadruple in 90 years between 2010 and 2100. It is important to note that these projections are significantly higher than projections from the beginning of this decade which is mainly due to fertility rates dropping more slowly than expected.

What is, in a global perspective, even more significant than the very high pace of change and growth rate of the African population, is the dramatically changing relative position of the continent globally, in terms of its demography. Historically, Africa had been scarcely populated and it had accounted for around 10 per cent of the world population throughout the last millennium. According to projections, this proportion could change dramatically in the coming decades. Africa is expected to account for roughly 60 per cent of all the anticipated world population growth until 2050, with an additional 1.3 billion people out of 2.2 billion. Beyond 2050, the continent is projected to be the only world region continuing to grow in terms of its population. It is important to note, that the population of Africa will continue to increase in the coming decades even if fertility rates would fall instantly from the current rate of 4.43 to replacement level.

This is due to Africa’s age structure, which is exceptionally youthful. As these large cohorts of children and youth will be reaching adulthood in the coming decades, their childbearing will further increase the size of African population even if they would have on average much lower fertility rates than their parents’ generation. Africa’s proportion of the global population could thus, based on medium projections, rise from around 9 per cent in 1950 to potentially 40 per cent in 2100. If we take into consideration that the relative share of the African continent on world population has been largely constant over at least the last millennium, it seems almost inevitable that this shift has considerable and wide-ranging geopolitical, economic, social, and environmental consequences.

While the above described changes will undoubtedly have massive implications for Africa’s future development, there is little agreement and contrasting views on whether it should be regarded as an opportunity or rather as a threat, and what will be its global implications.

One of the most widely discussed phenomena in this context is Africa’s young age structure resulting from the continent’s ongoing demographic transition. The demographic dividend theory and the theory of youth bulges show two very different trajectories of possible African development, as a consequence of this youthful age structure.

On the more optimistic side, similarly to the so-called “Asian Tigers”, African states and the world could benefit hugely from the continent’s ability to reap its demographic dividend. The demographic dividend is a phenomenon which occurs in the second phase of the demographic transition, namely when declines in child mortality have been followed by declines in fertility, resulting in a low dependency ratio. It is a period of roughly a few decades, during which the working-age population needs to support relatively fewer dependents (children or elderly), potentially leading to economic growth.

While fertility rates have been steadily decreasing in virtually all Sub-Saharan African countries from the 1990s, in many countries, fertility rates and young-age dependency ratios are still too high for a demographic dividend to occur. On a continental level, children under age 15 make up 41 per cent of the population in 2017, while youth aged between 15 and 24 account for 19 per cent. In case fertility rates would continue to drop at an increased pace, the continent could have an age-structure which would enable a demographic dividend.

The benefits of a demographic dividend can, however, be reaped only when a number of other conditions apply as well. Strong demand for labour is crucial, as large youth cohorts need to be able to find productive employment, rather than be unemployed or be forced into low-productivity work. Moreover, the economic environment needs to be conducive, and there need to be considerable investments into health and education, which increase productivity. In Africa, substantive challenges exist to harnessing the demographic dividend.

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