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Population Growth Could Destroy Africa

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Via my Kenya Imagine colleague Daniel Waweru, I came across a blog post by World Bank economist Wolfgang Fengler arguing that population growth in Africa might actually aid development. Essentially, he notes that economic growth is tied to urbanisation, which is tied to population growth. So as long as the population continues to increase everything will be OK!

Erm, no. Hell to the N to the O, with a neck-wind and a finger-snap for good measure. Now, I know I’m being presumptuous, going up against one of the World Bank’s chief economists, but I simply don’t buy this for a second. Let’s look at the figures. The African population may have already reached 1 billion and could double by 2050. Currently, according to the World Bank’s own figures, the poverty rate in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen 8% in the period from 1996 to 2005. Half the population live in poverty, which is I suppose is better than just over half. Whoo! Progress!

And urbanisation is not necessarily a good thing. Especially not if there is not the infrastructure to cope with the increased population. Take Lagos, for example, where three quarters of the city’s population live in slums. Now, this doesn’t mean that they are all suffering extreme deprivation, the BBC are currently showing a program that highlights their ingenuity and resilience, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for unfettered and uncontrolled growth is it? Across the world, over one billion people already live in slums. I don’t believe that Fengler is arguing that these are desirable living conditions, but as more people move to urban areas in the hope of better economic prospects, without massive efforts to build affordable housing, the number of slum dwellers will grow.

Meanwhile South Africa, the other economic powerhouse of the continent, still has a 27% unemployment rate, despite the efforts of the government to improve opportunities through the black economic empowerment (BEE) program, which even Jacob Zuma admits has failed. The majority of the black population still live in poverty in townships, with little to show for all the progress of the post-apartheid era. Jobs are still difficult to come by, promised upgrades to housing either hasn’t happened or has been patchy, and only a handful have benefited from all of the investment centred around the World Cup. If the two biggest economies in Africa can’t make things worth with the population they have now, what will happen when their populations are twice as big?

Fengler does make a good point that the growth in population today is due to improved longevity, rather than excessively high birth rates. Nevertheless, once again, this brings me round to what to do with all of these people. According to Fengler, Kenya’s population will reach 85 million by 2050. All those individuals will need to be fed, housed, clothed, educated and gainfully employed if economic growth is to be a reality. Given that we can’t even guarantee a secondary education for all the children we currently have, something tells me things are going to get much worse before they get better. The transition to a “knowledge economy” will require a highly educated workforce, and the infrastructure for that isn’t in place.

The environment is another factor. As climate change has affected the continent, the amount of marginal land that yields low harvests has been increasing, while competition for land in fertile areas has also grown. Will Africa be able to feed this burgeoning population? Parts of the continent are already dependent on food aid, and the cost of staple products has been rising. True, there are always imports, but at what cost, and who will be able to buy? With other nations buying up swathes of African agricultural land for their own puroses, there is also the danger that there may not be enough room to grow food for the indigenous population. Foreign investment may have to come at the expense of entrusting food security to other nations.

In effect, I just don’t believe that Africa at present is in a position to cope adequately with a doubling of population, nor do I see any positive outcome from such a population increase without the kind of concerted public welfare effort from governments that has been remarkable by its absence. Affordable housing must be built for those currently in slums; urban infrastructure must be improved so that the rainy season does not mean floods and sewage overflowing in the streets; educational opportunities must be expanded for those who currently only have a primary school educations; those who have left education need jobs that pay wages that will support a reasonable standard of living. All this and more needs to happen for the people who are here now. Without that we can’t adequately prepare for the future.

Urbanisation may be a symptom, rather than a spur to economic growth. At present, Africa is seeing increased urbanisation and growth for the few, rather than the majority. This leads to income disparity, social inequality, and resentment. And there’s only one way that turns out: civil unrest.

[Image by 19Melissa68]



  1. blk guy says:

    I do believe the population boom in Africa will spure growth and development,it did in China, India and NYC but why should it be different in Africa?Countries like Nigireia has a strong and growing economy,and contrary to beliefs they are providing for there population.THe white people are gone ,now it give these contries a chance to grow,and its happening inTanzania,Kenya ,Ethiopia,,Angola, hell even the Congolies exspirienced economic growth,These are just growing pains, the same Europien countries went through that made them go out and take from other people to spure there own growth.the foot is off africas neck now, blk people have nowere to go but up ,WE DONT DIE WE MOTIPLY

  2. Stephanie Migot says:

    Whoa there, skippy! Some of those non-black people are as Kenyan as I am. I’d thank you to keep the casual bigotry to a minimum.

    First, while the Nigerian economy as a whole might be improving, there is still a staggering level of poverty amongst the population at large. The growth in the economy has not generated a level of trickle-down wealth to lift the prospects of the entire population.

    Second, China, as a communist-in-name-only-now state, with the ability to effect some level of command economy is a different prospect to the free-market principles that other developing nations adhere to. In addition, Chinese development has been accompanied by several egregious human rights violations that have been well documented, and I’m not convinced that is a price worth paying for increased exports.

    Finally, India is another mirage. While the middle class has grown and the economy has boomed, child poverty in the country has actually increased as GDP has grown. Once again, this is not a price worth paying for the sake of enriching those at the top of society, who are already doing quite well.

    More bodies does not translate to more wealth. I would suggest a highly-educated populace and incentives for entrepreneurs would be a better first step.

  3. louie jacuzzi says:

    I’ll weigh, but from a harsher, more draconian perspective. I’m not thinking in terms 2050 either; I’m thinking in terms 2300. I’m a (hated) AA, and I’ll use the dreaded evil letters IQ. I say long term(centuries) a population boom is good for Africa, and black people as a whole. A nation, imo, is only as good as the people who live in and run, and I’ll assume that the racist scientists (Watson, Rushton, Lynn, etc) are at least partially right. That is, blacks the world over have an IQ of around 85. I’ll do a bit of crazy statistics and say that of 2bn black people approx 615M will have IQ’s over 93, approx 315M over 100, approx 45M over 115 , approx 2.5M over 130, approx 600 over 160(super genius level). That’s a lot of smart black people !!! Worst case scenario, catostrophic starvation decimates all but the most fit(which in todays world, regardles of location, is smart/talented people) then in a century or two, we’ll have a super race selected by fierce competition

  4. louie jacuzzi says:

    Best case scenario, all those smart talented black people will pool their skills and talents to make a better world for black people, which according to the flynn would raise black iq by 10 points anyway. Smart, talented people tend to create and build; not just for themselves, but for those around them. So I’ll assume that the reality will be somewhere in the center of the poles, where stable societies will arise from the mental handywork of the gifted and talented with large contributions from the common black, and maybe in 300-400 years on par with or even surpassing the rest of the world

  5. Stephanie Migot says:

    Louie, if you had done any sort of empirical research, you would have found that IQ tests are not accurate measures of intelligence. Rather, they are measures of how well somebody can actually take a test.

    I have taken IQ tests and I also took the SATs when I thought I might go to an American college. Despite not applying anywhere, I had universities writing to me, begging me to apply. The only difference between me and any other black person is that I had a good education.

    In sum, you can take your eugenicist, racist opinions elsewhere. A bridge is missing its troll. Feel free to never visit this blog again.

  6. louie jacuzzi says:

    I wasn’t coming to pick a fight, but to add to the discussion. I’m not sure if you even considered the merits of what I was saying, but it’s your blog, I can’t tell you what to think, or feel. As I stated, I myself am also black (AA), so I figure naturally we should have a bit of common ground. Trolls come to start trouble, I came bearing ideas. A philosophical disagreement is what it is, but does hostility make either of better? An IQ score doesn’t accurately measure intelligence. I agree with you on that, but it is a strong statistical predictor of some very important life outcomes, especially in the western world. I admire your intelligence and strength of conviction. As you wish, I’ll be polite and stay away from your blog, but I’ll ask that you consider keeping disagreements philosophical and without hostility. I hope the best for you.

  7. Steff says:

    I myself am also black (AA), so I figure naturally we should have a bit of common ground

    Why? Do we have similar upbringings, move in the same social circles, share the same faith, or even work in the same field? My being black has zero input into how much in common I have with you.

    And this:

    An IQ score doesn’t accurately measure intelligence. I agree with you on that, but it is a strong statistical predictor of some very important life outcomes

    I am not going to get into a link battle with you, but let’s just agree that I take a very strong view in the opposite direction, as do a significant number of researchers. So the jury is still out.

    I like my ideas scientific and backed up by statistics. Philosophy is great, but it’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot when it buts up against reality in cases such as the topic of this post.

    If you think my post was hostile, you really don’t want to see what I get up to on talkboards.

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