Globalist Paper

East Africa: Left Behind

Why have fertility rates in East Africa bucked the global trend — and what does this mean for the region’s future?

Why have fertility rates in East Africa bucked the global trend?

Takeaways


  • The great demographic surprise of the last half century has been the precipitous decline in fertility almost everywhere in the world.
  • The next great demographic challenge will be support of a stable or declining population that is aging rapidly.
  • A number of countries in East Africa — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia and Rwanda — have experienced minimal fertility declines since 1995.
  • East Africa has at most two decades, or one generation, to reduce fertility to half its current level.
  • The alternative to a full demographic transition is already on display in Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan.

We have to realize that, for most of the world, the fear of overpopulation is entirely misplaced. Why? Because the end of the population explosion is near. Yes, the numbers sound dramatic. After all, we only reached a population of one billion people early in the 19th century and two billion around 1925.

It is only in a few countries where the demographic revolution, which has reduced fertility rates to levels near or below the replacement rate (about 2.1 babies per woman), is not proceeding apace. Eastern Africa is especially worrisome, because there fertility decline has stalled at high levels, while water resources appear insufficient to sustain high incomes.

Demographic transition

The great demographic surprise of the last half century has been the precipitous decline in fertility almost everywhere in the world. Birth rates are still high, because there are so many young women of child-bearing age, themselves the product of high fertility rates and improved health standards in recent decades. However, by the time today’s little girls become grandmothers, the world population will likely have reached its all-time maximum, which is unlikely to exceed ten billion.

Everybody knows that China has achieved low fertility through its draconian one-child policy. Indeed, many otherwise liberal observers openly or implicitly praise enforced population controls in China because they think only such extreme restrictions on private choice and freedom could bring China’s population growth under control.

Few of these apologists for Chinese population policy realize that in virtually every other developing country, fertility has been plunging over the past several decades. Women are choosing to have not six or seven, but four, three and eventually fewer than two children each. (See Figure One, below.)

FIGURE ONE. Click on the image for a larger version of this figure.

Data Source: World Bank’s World Development Indicators

This decline in fertility does not require enlightened, honest leadership or rapid economic growth (though the presence of both factors speeds it up). As Figure Two (below) shows, the pattern is extremely widespread, arriving earlier in some countries than in others. Between 1960 and 2009, fertility for the world as a whole was cut in half, from almost five children per woman to fewer than two and a half.

The pattern of rapid fertility decline has affected not only well-governed countries such as Korea and Costa Rica, but also countries notorious for corruption. In fact, one of the most rapid declines in fertility has taken place in Bangladesh, a country consistently rated by Transparency International as highly corrupt.

FIGURE TWO. Click on the image for a larger version of this figure.

Data Source: World Bank’s World Development Indicators

Neither population police nor family planning agencies are responsible for this plunge in fertility rates, though technology to limit unwanted pregnancies and births is necessary. Instead, education opportunities for girls, new employment opportunities for women and public health measures that reduce infant mortality have driven the choices families make. And young women have decided to have fewer children, astonishingly rapidly.

Yet like generals prepared to fight the last war, population pessimists fail to understand that the next great demographic challenge will be not further reduction in population growth, but support of a stable or declining population that is aging rapidly. The OECD countries and China are already facing this issue — but within a generation or two, most of the world will face it.

The left behind: today

Unfortunately, the optimistic story of self-correcting population growth is not universally true. One part of the world, in particular, lags dangerously behind: East Africa.

I am particularly concerned because I had occasion in October 2011 to visit Kenya for a month, a country my wife and I called home for five years some decades ago. Our son was born there (“a Kenyan citizen by birth and returnable at any time”). The population dilemma of East Africa thus hits close to home in our family, even though we live in Washington, D.C.

FIGURE THREE. Click on the image for a larger version of this figure.

Data Source: World Bank’s World Development Indicators

As Figure Three (above) shows, a number of countries in Eastern Africa — not only Kenya but Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia and Rwanda — have experienced minimal fertility declines since 1995. True, all now have fertility rates lower than in 1960, but all appear stuck with fertility well above four children per woman. True also that some neighboring countries, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Ethiopia, have exhibited rapid fertility decline into the new century.

Yet, in the rest of the world, there are few similar examples: In Jordan and Ghana, fertility decline has slowed, while fertility in the Congo, Nigeria, Mali and Niger has hardly begun to decline. But East Africa is unique in presenting a block of contiguous countries with fertility arrested in mid-decline.

The left behind: tomorrow

In 1969, when I first arrived in Kenya, its population was fewer than 11 million. Today, the population exceeds 40 million. Together, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia and Rwanda have a population of nearly 170 million.

Their current fertility rates imply that their populations will more than double in a generation. By mid-century, these seven countries alone are likely to have a population that at least equals that of the United States or Western Europe.

Of course, rapid fertility decline could resume in Eastern Africa as it did in Cambodia and Iran, after internal upheavals. But there are far more terrifying possibilities as well.

Depressingly, incomes in Kenya have been essentially stagnant. That does not mean that total economic output has stagnated. But the increase in real GDP since 1985 has barely exceeded the increase in population. True, the average level of education is much higher today than when I lived in Kenya, and the country is a world leader in innovative deployment of wireless technology, with cheap telephone and Internet services available throughout the country, affecting the lives of the poor as well as the rich.

But with population growth stuck in overdrive, it is clear that the current path of development in Kenya, as in the rest of Eastern Africa, is unsustainable. The region has at most two decades, or one generation, to reduce fertility to half its current level.

The alternative to a full demographic transition is already on display. Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan offer the models of collapse of social order and property rights when drought and overgrazing on marginal land make it no longer possible to carry the resident population. Most of Kenya and large parts of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia are semi-arid with unreliable rainfall. Water is the key constraint on potential economic growth. If the population level in these areas rises inexorably, surface water will fail, and aquifers will be drained.

And then? Then, Malthus’ specter of war, disease and famine will be realized. Note that what is held out as a global specter — that the rise in population growth will lead to the much-predicted age of Malthus globally — will manifest itself only in one world region, but with disastrous effects for all concerned there.

What to do?

East Africa is the largest block of countries in which demographic transition has slowed alarmingly. In West Africa, several countries also continue to have high fertility levels. Several counties of the Sahel face water problems similar to East Africa’s.

But consider this: There were 54 countries with populations greater than one million in 2009 that had fertility rates greater than four children per woman. Of these 54, 44 were on trajectories (since 2000) that implied fertility would fall to 2.1 (replacement level) within 50 years, or two generations. Of the remaining ten, slow-changing countries, six were in East Africa.

What is going on? If only we knew! No single explanation — slow economic growth, good or bad government, family planning activity, the HIV/AIDS epidemic — makes for a convincing story. For most of the developing world, the population bomb has defused itself through remarkably rapid fertility decline. Why has this process stalled in East Africa? If I were a praying man, I would turn there now.

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About Bernard Wasow

Bernard Wasow is Mexico based and a former professor of economics at New York University.

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