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]