Sub- Saharan Africa birth rates not sustainable
I was one of five children. That was normal at the time when I grew up, but my siblings and I have had a total of only 10 children, so we’re down to replacement level in this generation. This is not happening in Tanzania.
“Women can now throw away their contraceptives,” said Tanzania’s President John Magufuli on Sunday. Secondary education is now free in the East African country, he pointed out, so children are no longer such a major expense. Tanzania needs more people, and women who don’t have more babies are just lazy.
“They do not want to work hard to feed a large family, and that is why they opt for birth control and end up with one or two children only,” Magufuli said. “I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere and have seen the harmful effects of birth control.”
The average woman in Tanzania has more than five children. The population has grown at three per cent annually for decades, and since independence in 1961 it has increased sixfold, from 10 million to 60 million. There is no sign of the birth rate dropping, and the country is on course for 100 million in fewer than 20 years.
Yet Magufuli thinks the country needs more people. He is not alone in this conviction. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (which has about the same birth rate as Tanzania) once told me his country could easily feed 100 million people. He called the country’s population explosion “a great resource.”
Uganda’s population at independence in 1962 was seven million people. It’s now 45 million, and will reach that 100 million target in about 30 years. And there is no reason to believe it will stop there. Uganda’s birth rate has not dropped in decades either.
The end-of-century predictions for these countries if birth rates gradually drop toward replacement level, as they did in Asia and Latin America in the past 50 years, is around 300 million each. But if the birth rates don’t drop in future decades, these two countries alone will have a billion people in 2100. That’s a very bad idea.
And still Magufuli wants to get the birth rate up. He presumably believes a bigger population makes a country stronger, but if that were true Tanzania would already be as powerful as France. Five or 10 times its current population will make it weaker, not stronger. It will also ruin the environment and leave a lot of people hungry.
Hardly anybody in Tanzania sees curbing population growth as a priority, and it’s certainly not a votewinner. Indeed, this is true for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and those who point out it could ruin the continent’s future are frequently accused of neo-colonial or racist attitudes. But there are a few bright spots, and one of them is on the other side of Africa, in Ghana.
Ghana’s population was five million at independence in 1957; now it’s 30 million. But with great effort, it has got its total fertility down to four children per woman, and if the birth rate continues to fall the prediction is for 73 million people at the end of the century. Leticia Adelaide Appiah thinks this still is too many.
Appiah is the executive director of Ghana’s National Population Council, and a very brave woman. She has proposed women be restricted to having three children, and denied access to free government services if they exceed that number. It’s a long way short of China’s now-abandoned one-child policy, but at least it addresses the problem.
She has faced a storm of criticism for her proposal (almost all of it from men), but she has stood her ground. There is little prospect Ghana will actually adopt such a policy in the immediate future, but Africa needs more women like her. Urgently. Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).