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Vol 50 No 20

Published 8th October 2009

Africa joins the billion club

The population of sub-Saharan Africa will exceed one billion this year so the African nations entering the 2010 World Cup can hope for a large fan base. For optimists, billionaire status offers the opportunity for the continent to follow in the footsteps of China and India (which, however, have one government each) and reap a demographic dividend. Others argue that it will intensify the pressure on land, food, water and job opportunities, as many governments increasingly fail to meet demand for basic social services such as education and health care.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which made the one-billion prediction, says sub-Saharan Africa faces serious political, economic and social challenges. Twenty years of population growth at almost 3% have outpaced economic gains, leaving Africans, on average, 22% poorer than they were in the mid-1970s. The United States-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) says that Nigeria's population, currently at 148 million, is set to rise to 282 mn. by 2050, which would make this the world's sixth most populous country. By 2050, Egypt's population will rise from 75 mn. to 118 mn., Ethiopia's from 79 mn. to 148 mn., Kenya's from 38 mn. to 65 mn. South Africa will grow a bit more slowly, from 48 mn. to 55 mn. Uganda's population is set to rise from 29 mn. to 56 mn. by 2050. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, long a pro-natalist (that is, encouraging a high birth rate), saw a large population as an engine for economic growth. World Bank figures show that the gross domestic product of many African countries is growing faster than their populations. Yet the UNFPA observes that, despite improved economic performance in recent years, most African GDP growth rates are below the 6-8% required over ten years to reduce poverty. Poverty may in fact be on the increase, as the poor have the highest birth rates. According to Jean-Christophe Fotso of the African Population and Health Research Centre in Kenya, poor women there have three times as many children as well-off women.

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