Sun, Jan 03, 2010 - Page 9 News List

What the future holds for the billionth African

Population growth could bring unbearable strains — or a new economic dynamism

By David Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG

ILLUSTRATION: TANIA CHOU, TAIPEI TIMES

The baby’s name and nationality are not known. The child will grow up innocent of having a place in history. But somewhere, last year, that child became the billionth person in Africa, the continent with the fastest growing population in the world.

Climbing from 110 million in 1850, Africa’s headcount reached this threshold last year, the UN says, although patchy census data in many countries means that no one can say where or when.

By 2050, the population is projected to almost double, to 1.9 billion. Pessimists predict a human tide that will put an unbearable burden on food, jobs, schools, housing and healthcare. Yet optimists sense an opportunity to follow billion-strong China and India in pursuing economic growth.

“It’s not a problem,” said Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born British entrepreneur. “Africa is underpopulated. We have 20 percent of the world’s landmass and 13 percent of its population. We have a bulge of young people and that brings to the marketplace a huge workforce, whereas Europe’s population is ageing. We need to focus on education and training.”

Africans born today are likely to live not in a village but in a “mega-city,” since the continent’s rate of urbanization is the fastest the world has yet seen. Deaths from smoking or car crashes will be a factor as much as the more familiar health issues of malnutrition, malaria and AIDS. These citizens will also be vulnerable to droughts, floods and desertification caused by climate change.

But the children of last year will also have opportunities undreamed of by their ancestors. They will almost certainly own a mobile phone, or perhaps two and eventually get regular Internet access. They may be better off — Africa has the fastest economic growth this year outside China and India. They will have tentative grounds to hope for better governance and fewer wars. If, that is, they can stay alive beyond infancy.

Richmond Tiemoko, population and development adviser for the Africa regional office of the UN population fund (UNFPA), said: “The first challenge for the baby ... is to survive because, although it’s declining, child mortality is still high. For the young people coming, the challenge is to get a good education so they are fully incorporated in modern society. That depends on government investment in them and their mother, and also in health services to ensure they survive and are healthy.”

Africa’s population has doubled in the past 27 years, with Nigeria’s and Uganda’s climbing the fastest. Whereas in 1950 there were two Europeans for every African, by 2050 there will be two Africans for every European. Even China’s projected population of 1.4 billion in 40 years will be shrinking, while India will be adding only 3 million a year to its 1.6 billion people. Women in Africa still bear more children than in other regions. The US-based Population Reference Bureau reported this year that, while the average woman worldwide has 2.6 children, in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 5.3. The world’s highest fertility rate is in Niger, where women have on average 7.4 children.

Africa’s population continues to rise because of low life expectancy, Tiemoko said.

“Traditionally in all societies, when mortality is high, fertility tends to be high. When people are dying the population tries to offset that by having more children to make sure the survival rate is acceptable. Mortality has largely declined on the continent but is still high,” he said.

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