Kampala — With the population of Africa predicted to double within the next 30 years, the economic future of its people is set to be very bleak unless something is done to combat the uncontrolled growth rate.
Africa's fertility rate has been on the increase in recent years out of pace with the continent's ability to feed the new mouths or to put in place the physical and social services that will ensure a reasonable quality of life for the people. In order to tackle this problem the time has come to seek new avenues through which the message will reach the villages that unless the present generation reduces its reproductive propensity tomorrow's children will face a very bleak future.
According to the Population Reference Bureau (2001) the estimated population of Africa in 2001 was 810 million people. This suggests an increase of 733 million people in the 501 years between 1500 and 2001 an average of 1.46 million people per year or 0.45% annual growth rate.
However, between 2000 and 2001 alone the African population increased by 20 million or 2.4% in spite of the scourge of HIV/AIDS! Earlier between 1975 and 2001 the population doubled from 402 to 820 million people. Thus while African population growth rates were low in the past the rates have gone up considerably during the last 20 years.
It is on the basis of these trends that experts predict that unless checked the population will double from the present level of around 850 million to 1.7 billion people within the next 30 years. The continent will simply not be able to cope with the multiplicity of problems a population in billions will bring about. As has been said by one population expert, "High rates of population growth create unemployment faster than jobs, increase the mouths to be fed faster than the production of rice paddies, squatters faster than people housed in modern facilities, excrement faster than sewers can be built.
A population growing faster than the output of modern goods and services not only frustrates development goals; it undermines the credibility of promises made in the name of development and the political will to pay the price of progress."
There is a direct correlation between high population growth and low level economic development in Africa. For example with its population growing at twice the rate for the world the continent still contains 32 of the 47 countries classified by the World Bank as least developed in the world. Secondly, while the continent's population grew at the rate of 2.9% between 1960 and 1980, GNP per capita grew at a rate of 1.9% per annum between 1965 and 1983. Thirdly, it is now well established that countries with the highest fertility rates also happen to be among the poorest.
With a total fertility rate of 6.6, the highest in Africa, Chad's GNP per capita of around $230 is the lowest in the world while Algeria with a total rate of 3.8 had a GNP per capita of $1550.
Africa's population growth has not always been that rapid. Although nobody knows precisely how large the population of the continent was 1,000 years ago expert conjecture puts it at 39 million people or 15.5% of the then world population of 253 million people. The continent's population was estimated to have increased to 87 million people or 19% of the world population by 1,500 AD. This means that Africa gained 48 million people in 500 years an average of 96,000 people per year or a growth rate of 0.16% per annum. By 1850 Africa's population declined to about 8.3% of that of the world. This decline between the 17th and 19th centuries has been attributed to European contact with Africa and the subsequent exportation of their diseases to the region as well as the transatlantic slave trade which depleted the population by millions.
Although Europe also experienced a population growth during the same period, its effects were mitigated by the new science and technology as well as immigration of its people to other continents. With the new science and technology most people could expect a longer and healthier life and there was a drop in child mortality rates while the population became more mobile.
Immigration to Australia, South America, the United States, Africa and elsewhere meant that Europe escaped the rough edge of its population growth. Across the waters Japan had a different experience from that of Europe. Between 1872 and 1925 Japan's population increased from 35 million people to 60 million which created a problem for the already densely populated islands and at the same time immigration was not an option as was the case in Europe. The Japanese responded by placing emphasis on manufacturing and foreign trade in the hope that new factories and markets would create employment. They did.
The fight to combat the plague of population growth has had a chequered history. When condoms were invented in the early 20th century they were associated with defence against unwanted children and syphilis. It was not until the 60s that condoms became a public defence against population explosion. Sweden was the first country to provide international support for population control when it assisted Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1958.
The United States which is today the biggest donor in this field went through three phases before it accepted its leading role in the fight against the new epidemic. In 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower declared that "birth control is not our business" but 10 years later President Richard Nixon announced that America would provide clear leadership in combating population growth and birth control. Five years later the American representative to the UN declared that the problem was no longer a private matter signifying America's direct involvement.
The United Nations came on board in 1966 when it reached a consensus on "population assistance" and this was followed by the establishment of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. By 1977 out of 114 developing countries surveyed 83 had a central population planning agency. Unfortunately these efforts have not produced the desired results. It may well be that in the case of Africa the programmes have overlooked the involvement of some vital players such as religious organisations and cultural groups.
Reproduction in Africa is a cultural issue in which large families are seen as a source of free labour and wealth. Only cultural institutions have the ability to change their peoples' perceptions in this regard and as such must be put at the forefront in the fight against the scourge of population explosion.
The writer is a lawyer