The rising human tide in Africa

“If the biggest global news story of the past 40 years has been China’s economic growth,” wrote demographer Paul Morland, “the biggest news story of the next 40 years will be Africa’s population growth.”

In his book, The Human Tide, Morland traced what’s called the demographic transition in society after society, from Britain and Germany to China and India.  The pattern is that societies experience surges in population when the death rate falls and life expectancy increases, but then the fertility rate levels off and then decreases.

In many parts of the world, including North America, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, the fertility rate is below 2.1 children per woman, which is the replacement rate.

In general, each successive society that underwent this transition had a bigger and more rapid surge in population than the ones that went before, but also a more sudden drop.  The latest region of the world to begin the demographic transition is sub-Saharan Africa, and that part of the world is still in the early stages of its population surge.

United Nations statistics quoted by Morland show that:

  • Of the 48 states and territories with fertility rates of 4 and above, all but seven are in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Nine out of 10 countries with the highest fertility rates are in Africa.
  • Every one of the 30 countries with the lowest life expectancy are in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • All but two of the 30 countries with highest infant mortality rates and the lowest median age are in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing more than twice as fast as the world as a whole.

Fertility rates in Africa are falling, just as in the rest of the world, and Morland is confident they will continue to fall.  But they are falling from such a high level that there will be a population surge regardless.  Population growth depends not only on how many children the average woman has, but how many women there are of child-bearing age.

My knowledge of Africa is superficial, but it is obvious that conditions in sub-Saharan Africa are bad.  Much of Africa is at risk of famine.  Africa is torn by war and ravaged by drought—which can only get worse, as global temperatures rise.  Corruption is prevalent.  Although there are bright spots and encouraging signs, most African governments still are on a spectrum from corrupt semi-democracies to dictatorships for life.

I have to say that I have a good impression of African immigrants in the USA—not only highly educated professionals from Nigeria and Kenya, but also poor refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Somalia, whom I got to know as a volunteer driver years ago for a Catholic refugee resettlement charity here in Rochester, N.Y..

Most of the refugees struck me as having great resilience, great personal dignity and a strong desire to repay the least little kindness.  Somali refugees were moved into a section of a public housing project, and the smell of Somali home cooking replaced the smell of marijuana in the hallways.  The managers were glad to have tenants who didn’t drink alcohol or take dope, play loud music late at night or get into fights in which the police had to be called.  From what I’m told, they’ve all thrived since.

So I’m not going to say black Africans or anybody else are doomed.  Dial back history far enough and conditions in any part of the world are as bad as they now are in sub-Saharan Africa.  Eighty years ago, the prospects for China were as dire as they are for Africa today.  Nobody I know of foresaw then that China would be a prosperous, united and powerful nation today.

How the UN changed its African population forecast

Remember that Africa in these three charts includes North Africa.

Demographer Paul Morland thinks Nigeria will probably become an economic powerhouse comparable to India and that sub-Saharan African countries will successfully navigate the demographic transition just like all the countries that went before them.

This assumes the world continues to progress during the next 80 years as it has during the last couple of centuries.  But the pattern of past events is only a guide to what can happen.  It is not a guarantee of what will happen.

Progress is being threatened by global climate change, which is hitting sub-Saharan Africa especially hard. At best, Africa is in for devastating droughts and bad harvests.  At worst, parts of Africa become uninhabitable.  Other threats include new drug-resistant tropical diseases and new genocidal wars.

I can imagine a sub-Saharan Africa 80 years from now that is even poorer than the Africa of today.  I can imagine an Africa that has collapsed into anarchy and chaos.  I can imagine a mass migration of hungry Africans into the Mediterranean lands and Europe.  I can imagine Europe as a besieged fortress or the world’s largest refugee camp.

But what do I know?  Maybe a youthful, dynamic Africa will take the reins of world leadership from an aging Asia and a fading West and bring about a new renaissance of science, culture and enterprise.  The only thing certain about the future is that it is unknowable.

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