By Gado Alzouma, Nigerian, professor of socio-anthropology
At the end of August, Mabingué Ngom, a United Nations official for West Africa, wrote in Jeune Afrique that mentalities are « changing too slowly » in the area of birth reduction. But the Ivorian academic Gado Alzouma sees things differently.
The rapid increase in population is probably the best thing that has happened to the continent in at least five centuries. This strong demographic growth must be sustained and maintained over the coming decades, because it will determine Africa’s position in the world of tomorrow and, above all, its economic development.
The figures prove it: contrary to what is often said, the continent’s economic growth and, in particular, the life expectancy of Africans have never progressed as much as they have since the population has been increasing at a sustained rate. The example of Niger, a country whose population growth and fertility rate are said to be the highest in the world, amply proves this.
Indeed, Niger has a fertility rate of almost 7 children per woman of childbearing age and a population growth rate of 3.8%. It is also the poorest country in the world according to the Human Development Index (HDI 2020: last of the 189 countries ranked) and some have been quick to link this poverty to population growth, arguing that if we are poor, it is because we are having too many children. But the figures show quite the opposite.
VERY OFTEN, ANY COUNTER-INTUITIVE HYPOTHESIS COMES UP AGAINST THE WALL OF COMMON SENSE
This paradox probably stems from the fact that the assertion that poverty is caused by high birth rates is almost always made without prior examination. It seems self-evident, self-sufficient, and as is often the case in science, any counter-intuitive hypothesis runs up against the wall of common sense.
As for the analysts, they generally provide, at best, only the population growth figures (almost always extrapolated over decades) without comparing them with other figures, those that give an idea of the improvement, over time, of the living conditions of African populations, for example life expectancy, infant mortality or school enrolment.
Better fed and educated
Yet, whatever these apparently well-meaning observers say, Africans in general and Nigerians today in particular are better educated, live longer, are healthier, are better fed, etc. than Africans or Nigerians of yesterday. Whatever indicator we take today is far better than it was in 1960 or 1980 or even 1990 relative to the population figures of the time and as the population grew.
To give an idea of the speed of population growth in Niger, let us compare it with France between 1960 and 2020. In 1960, France had just over 46 million inhabitants and Niger just over 3 million. The French population was therefore more than 15 times higher than that of Niger. In 2020, the French population (66 million) was only a little over 2.5 times that of Niger (24 million).
Let us now look at the increase in life expectancy. In 1970, life expectancy in Niger was 35.88 years and the population was just over 4.5 million. By 2018, life expectancy had risen to 61.6 years and the population to 22.4 million. This means that in the space of 48 years, life expectancy in Niger has increased by almost 26 years, while the population has grown by almost 18 million people.
The evolution of life expectancy is therefore remarkable in Niger, whatever can be said about the speed of population growth. This is particularly evident when we refer to the life expectancy expected in 2030 (in almost 9 years) when we make projections based on current growth rates: 69.8 years. In this time, the country will therefore gain more than 8 years.
It can also be seen that this increase accelerates as time goes on. Whereas between 1970 and 2018, life expectancy will have increased by an average of 5.4 years every 10 years, it will increase by about 7 years every 10 years between 2018 and 2030.
Moreover, if we look at the past, we see that between 1950 and 1960, Niger only went from 34.29 years to 35.01 years. This means that in 10 years Niger had not even gained one year of life expectancy at that time. The same is true for the decades that followed, since the country only gained a few months between 1960 and 1970 and only a little less than 3 years between 1970 and 1980. In comparison, the average number of years a child born in Niger in 2019 can expect to live is 62.16 years, a gain of more than half a year over 2018 alone. In the past, it would have taken almost 10 years to make a comparable increase.
Declining mortality rate
Better still, this is true not only of life expectancy, but also of any other indicator relating to the living conditions of Nigeriens. This is the case, for example, of the mortality rate. During the period 1990-2012, the mortality rate fell from 22.6 per thousand to 11.2 per thousand. This means that mortality has halved, even though the population has grown from 7.523 million to 17.073 million over the same period, increasing by almost 10 million people. Contrary to what would have been implied by the catastrophic discourse on population, the improvement in the mortality rate was concomitant with the population increase.
The same can be said of agricultural production, for example that of millet, an essential food in Niger, which increased threefold between 1990 and 2014, even though the population increased more than twofold during the same period. The same is true for poverty, the incidence of which was 63% in 1993 and 48.2% in 2011. Between 2011 and 2020, it has continued to fall, to 42.9%, a figure that is probably still too high but still significant if we consider the long term and if the trends continue.
POPULATION GROWTH HAS GONE HAND IN HAND WITH IMPROVED SCHOOL ENROLMENT
Another important indicator is the school enrolment rate. The increase in population has not led to a reduction in state resources and a collapse in the enrolment rate. On the contrary! Not only has the state been able to cope with the constant increase in the population and the number of school-age children, but here too, the further back one goes, the more the enrolment rate has improved. In other words, population growth has gone hand in hand with improvements in school enrolment.
For example, between 2003 and 2014, the enrolment rate increased from 43.3% to 70.6% in 10 years, while the population increased from 11.834 million to 19.148 million. For the period 2012-2020, Unicef writes: « As a result of significant investments since 2012, the number of children enrolled in primary school has increased by 35%. Enrolment in lower secondary school has almost doubled since 2012. » Again, in the meantime, the population has grown from nearly 18 million to over 24 million. As we can see, here again, the increase in population has been accompanied by an improvement in indicators.
THIS POVERTY IS DUE FIRST AND FOREMOST TO WIDESPREAD CORRUPTION
However, it is true that these improvements are still too slow and that Niger, compared to other countries, is a poor country, the poorest country in the world, but I think that the reasons for this must be sought elsewhere than in population growth. For me, this poverty can be explained first and foremost by widespread corruption, the poor choice of national development policies, insecurity, the incompetence of the leaders and the fact that the (abundant) wealth extracted from the subsoil does not benefit the country and the people. Population growth, which is almost always the only reason given for poverty, is a convenient smokescreen behind which to refuse to examine these realities.
Source: Jeune Afrique, 05 September 2021