Africa’s population challenge
July 1st, 2013
10:00 AM ET

Africa’s population challenge

By Global Public Square staff

It's rare enough for a U.S. president to visit Africa. This week, two of them are there – President Obama, of course, but also his predecessor, George W. Bush. The two visits are unrelated, but the focus is common: how to engage with the world's fastest growing continent.

Africa was for many decades the "dark continent," or the "hopeless continent," as The Economist once put it. More recently it has become the Great Hope of the business world.  The Economist updated its take to "Africa Rising."  The World Bank recently said Africa could be on the verge of a take-off the like of China's 30 years ago.

Africa's recent growth has been impressive and important. But let's step back and get some perspective before we break out the champagne.

First, the case for optimism: growth.

As populations stagnate or even decline in Europe, Japan, and China ... Africa's population of one billion is expected to more than double by 2050. More people, means more consumption, more production, more growth.

African economies grew on average around 6 percent last year: that's three times the pace of America's growth, and faster than many Asian countries. A new world is opening up to Africans as they get used to credit cards and mobile phones. And they are also becoming economically more free and more democratic.

But there are hurdles ahead.

The World Economic Forum's new Africa Competitiveness Report shows that of the 20 least competitive economies in the world, 14 are African. What this means is that African economies are blighted by low productivity. They may be growing for now, and from a very low base, but they are over-dependent on commodities.

More than half of the continent's total exports are minerals, a focus which makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in global demand. More than two-thirds of Africa's labor force is employed in agriculture, much of it subsistence agriculture. On the other hand, manufacturing (the hallmark of a developed economy) has essentially remained stagnant: its share of total GDP is the same as what it used to be in the 1970s!

The African Economic Outlook, published by the African Development Bank and others, builds on some of these points. It turns out that if the world's rich countries experience a 1 percent drop in growth that translates into a 10 percent drop for Africa's export earnings.

In most countries, economic and political reforms have stalled. Corruption remains staggeringly high. And the private sector remains much too tied to government favors.

Look at Africa's biggest economy. As attention centers on the great Nelson Mandela's life and legacy, South Africa itself is languishing. Annual growth fell to less than 1 percent in the latest quarter; youth unemployment hovers around 50 percent – a recipe for future crises.

What to make of all these facts and reports? South Africa's case is a warning for the rest of the continent. African countries have immense potential, but they need a continued commitment to bold reforms, transparency, free markets, and trade.

Perhaps the most crucial thing to watch is how Africa deals with its greatest resource: not oil, not minerals, but people. Africa’s share of the world's population will rise from one-seventh to about one-fifth by the middle of this century. If Africans get the right access to education, healthcare, good governance, and jobs, Africa will be a powerhouse. If not, the population growth is a curse not a blessing.

This week's visits by Obama and Bush are important. But what African countries need is not so much external attention as internal reform.

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Topics: Africa • What in the World?

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Michael Servetus

    Zakaria is the only commentator on CNN who makes the slightest attempt to be objective and in the center with his analysis. The only one I can listen to and watch the entire show without reaching for the remote. Morgan? Amanpour? Crowley? Don't get me started.

    July 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  2. vonrock

    It's all about money of course. Soon the majority of arable land will be owned by non-Africans and like Americans most will be Slaves to service jobs. Already China and western Europe have a BIG foothold in this scheme.

    July 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  3. Amy Phillips Bursch

    "More people means more consumption, more production, more growth." This is simply not true. Most of the nations with the highest birthrates are extremely poor and tend to stay that way, while nations with the lowest birthrates enjoy the highest standard of living. Unfortunately, persistent rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be a recipe for suffering, not success. - Amy Phillips Bursch, Population Connection

    July 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • Peter Stein, (Stockholm Sweden)

      Amy: You are more than partly right when you state that there is no clear-cut connection between growth in population, production and economic growth. But you overstate when you claim that countries with lowest birthrates enjoy the highest standards of living. The connection/correlation/causation is not straight here either. Sweden has higher birthrates than Iran, Thailand, Lebanon and Tunisia. Scandinavian countries have among the highest birthrates in Europé, as well as among the highest standards of living in the world.

      July 3, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
  4. JAL

    Obama announced an African energy initiative this week. What are your thoughts?

    July 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      Also, CNN did an exclusive interview with Laura and GW Bush. Did you see it and what did you think of the interview?

      July 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • karl from az

      I think using more cow dung for fuel is a great idea! In another 10 years this will also be the norm in AmeriKA!

      July 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  5. Marlin

    I am not sure at all how rapid growth is cause for hope. If anything its cause for dismay.

    Africa can barely feed its people ( when it can) now. If the population doubles it will be a disaster.

    There is cause to think that having lower populations in some cases can result in a more developed economy. When the nation strains to feed itself, it works every bit of arable land it has. This results in lower production per farmer ( as the lands are poorer) so more of the people have to be involved in low production farming rather than in other jobs. Such nations are also more adversely impacted by any disruption in agriculture as they have less buffer room.

    Look at Europe before it was hit by the black death. It was in a similar situation, straining to feed itself. However afterwards lands that were no longer needed went fallow, production per farmer went up, and farmers were even able to grow more veggies and fruit since they needed less ground for grains (smaller populations). In fact some historians cite the black death as a key factor in the renaissance. With fewer people needed to work farms, more individuals were available for other jobs such as crafts, trade, etc.

    The best population situation is one wish is stable and balanced, and able to easily feed itself. Africa will not have this.

    I just talked about food, I didn't even touch water which is perhaps even a bigger challenge. More people= more demand for fresh water for consumption, agriculture, and cleaning. It also means larger amounts of sewage and runoff from fields which would contaminate the water sources people would depend on.

    July 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  6. Stone Age

    Africa is a crap hole mostly because their leaders have used the money in the past for themselves never passing it on to the people, all while using religion etc. to control them. It is no wonder their countries on this continent generally suck and are slowly dying. They have been taken advantage of my corporations too, who wouldn't have been able to if their leaders didn't accept bribes.

    July 1, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  7. It doesn't matter

    Pretty soon the Aliens will come back and destroy most of the world's population. So no need to worry.

    July 1, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    Even though Africa is experiencing growth in terms of GDP per capita, the average European earns nearly 20 times more than the average African. This is largely due to lack of infrastructure, corruption, disease, misused money and largely exploited areas from British and French colonial rule.

    July 1, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  9. Codeguy

    Somebody write Bono about this. Where's my pen?

    July 2, 2013 at 2:08 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    Population size doesn't matter, it's its quality that counts, if a country wants to be strong economically.

    July 2, 2013 at 6:14 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Better to focus on a small vibrant population than on a big unproductive mass that faces famine, poverty and unemployment. Small countries with economic growth provide – in general – much better services, including a child care system that encourages women to be mothers and members of the work force at the same time.

      July 2, 2013 at 6:14 am | Reply
  11. Griff

    II really hope they overthrow the Chinese before they use up the resources and decimate the people of Africa.

    July 2, 2013 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • Stellenbosch

      chinese are peaceful .. they do not do any massacre

      July 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  12. Suzanne York

    The article states "If Africans get the right access to education, healthcare, good governance, and jobs, Africa will be a powerhouse. If not, the population growth is a curse not a blessing." That is a big if. The latest UN population projections reflect increasing fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    In the face of climate change and resource shortages, women need to be empowered and provided access to voluntary family planning services, education and sustainable livelihoods. Inequality and inequity must be addressed across the continent. And the environment protected.

    Pushing endless and unsustainable economic growth isn't the answer – just take a look at the corporate and international land grabs occurring in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Cameroon, and much of Africa.

    July 2, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  13. free71

    Curious comments here. Several people commented that high population growth on the African continent is a net negative, but I've noticed that high fertility rates are always viewed negatively if they are in places with people of color. I've yet to see the population control people suggest that China and India should lower fertility rates, nor do they comment on governmental efforts in some European countries aimed at increasing fertility rates.

    Growing populations are good for everyone except Africans apparently. We also need to watch the subtle racism of the "they can't feed themselves" crowd (even though the article clearly states that two-thirds of the labor force is involved in subsistence farming – meaning they are feeding themselves). Every African is not a candidate for a Sally Struthers commercial folks.

    July 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Reply
    • Marlin

      Nothing to do with being people of color. Its the reality of the challenges facing Africa.

      As for India, it is in the same situation. It has the advantage of greater (relative) stability, but they are going to be encountering the same problems in the future.

      China has already made serious strides in addressing its population problem and is stabilizing. The biggest problem facing China when it comes to its people in the future will be gender imbalances and an aging population twenty to thirty years from now.

      July 2, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply
    • SL

      Do some research before making yourself sound like a fool on the internet. China has taken enormous steps to ensure that their fertility rate is in check. In many parts of China, the fertility rate is dropping steadily. Ever heard of the "One child per family" policy? Yeah.

      As for India, their fertility rate is far more stable than Africa's.

      Nothing to do with colour at all.

      October 7, 2013 at 12:03 am | Reply
  14. Marjorie

    The article talks about a high need for education for Africans. One university on the continent of Africa is Africa University. Their mission is to train leaders for Africa. They have been doing this for 20 years. They currently have over 20 something countries represented at the school. Most of these students return to their countries and become leaders in their countries.The university is located in Old MUTARE, ZIMBABE.

    July 2, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  15. Tammy Pepple

    Thank you so so much for being so objective. I pray our leaders can read and understand the writings on the wall.

    August 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
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    September 3, 2017 at 10:18 am | Reply

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