Population in Africa: Whirlwind, or Just Spin?
What African nations really need are classic elements of prosperity: access to education, health care, drinking water, infrastructure, and their continent's vast natural resources.
January 27, 2019
Lindy Davies

Articles in such respected publications as Scientific American and The Guardian warn about an impending population explosion in Africa. One presents a graph of fertility projections featuring an "Oh wow" supercurve, showing Africa's population reaching 15.8 billion if present fertility rates continue! As we catch our breath, it goes on to reassure us that "demographers do not expect that to happen, but the projection shows how powerfully fertility drives growth." Yikes!

Yes, fertility drives growth. But the more important question, in terms of sustainability (not to mention prosperity and justice) is, "What drives fertility?" Those who fret over bad social and economic conditions in Africa conveniently forget that those conditions are, in fact, improving. By many measures, such as life expectancies and levels of literacy and income, life across Sub-Saharan Africa has improved from abjectly horrifying to merely very bad. In the 1990s, the total population of the African continent actually declined. Recent improvements in child survival have actually made it possible for population growth to take off.

Area (km2) 581,730
Population 2,182,719
Fertility 2.33
Urban Pop. % 57.4
Life exp.: male 55.9 female 52.3
HIV/AIDS % 25.1
GDP per capita 17,700
Literacy % 88
Below pov. line % 30.3

Area (km2) 923,768
Population 181,562,056
Fertility 5.19
Urban Pop. % 47.8
Life exp.: male 52.0 female 54.1
HIV/AIDS % 3.2
GDP per capita 6,400
Literacy % 59
Below pov. line % 70.0

We can illustrate these trends by comparing Nigeria, which is widely known as the world's poster child for the "resource curse," and Botswana, a nation that, despite having been dealt a much poorer hand by nature, is doing much better.

Botswana's economy depends to a large extent on diamond exports, a market which contracted rather severely during the Great Recession. Botswana is also severely affected by the AIDS epidemic, with 25% of its adult population living with HIV. However, Botswana's response to this crisis has exemplified effective, responsive governance; it began in 2002 to implement a program to provide nationwide access to anti-HIV drugs, and now 95% of its people who need such treatments are receiving them.

There is, of course, plenty of land in Africa. Even after decades of deforestation, it boasts wide expanses of virgin wildlife habitat; there are still wild elephants in Botswana, lions and giraffes in Uganda and Tanzania, and beleaguered mountain gorillas still hanging on in Rwanda and Congo. There is enough land to support nomadic herding peoples in the East and hunter-gatherer Bushmen in the Southwest. There is also abundant land available to be sold off, in alarmingly large amounts, to foreign buyers. Since 2000, some 26 million hectares of land in Africa, an area about the size of Oregon, has either been sold or is in negotiation with foreign buyers. The land is mainly used either for (export) agriculture, or for forestry. This is a burgeoning practice, because it is very profitable for investors and offers quick cash to cynical politicians. Most of the lands being sold or leased at bargain prices are in the possession of national governments. As such, they are often farmed or grazed by local people at no cost; those people are displaced when the lands are given over to private tenure, which increases the pressure on sprawling cities. Make no mistake, this is a despicable practice that harms poor African people. Yet there is still time to halt it before irreparable harm is done. While an area the size of Oregon over fifteen years seems like a lot, in Africa it really isn't. Oregon is roughly the same size as Ghana; find Ghana on the map of Africa.

Deal-makers in cash-strapped governments say they need the money, but they really don't: land sell-offs are a counterproductive giveaway of national sovereignty. What most of Africa's nations really need are the classic elements of prosperity: access to education, health care, safe drinking water, reliable infrastructure and, indeed, to their continent's nearly unimaginable profusion of natural resources.

Yes, Africa's population has been growing rapidly. Yet with its current population density of 25 people per square kilometer, Africa is only a tiny bit more densely populated than North America (which includes all the open expanses of Canada, Alaska and the Western US), at 23.

Evidently we need to look to other causes to explain the persistence of poverty in Africa.

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This article is excerpted from a longer piece in the Georgist Journal. Here is information on subscribing!

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LINDY DAVIES was Program Director of the Henry George Institute and Editor of the Georgist Journal. He was the author of The Alodia Scrapbook, the fictitious story of how a struggling African nation used Geoism to set itself on the path to prosperity, and of the novel The Sassafras Crossing. He managed a successful campaign to get the Henry George Institute's distance-learning program approved by the National College Credit Recommendation Service. He passed away in 2019, and is lovingly remembered by the many people whose lives he touched.