18 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Census Results - Let's Plan for Prosperity


Zimbabwe population growth is now moderate with birth rates clearly dropping to around replacement levels, something that should have been expected when we made the decision in the 1980s to send all our girls to school and put in place at least the minimum levels of primary health care for children.

Over the past 10 years, according to preliminary results of the 2012 census, the population has risen from around 11,6 million to a little over 12,9 million. But far more significant is the number of people in a household; the average is now just 4,2 - suggesting strongly that two or three children is now the norm for most Zimbabwean couples.

This dramatic fall in the birth rate during the 1990s was not expected when the preliminary results of the 2002 census came out, causing too many people to jump to totally erroneous conclusions that millions of Zimbabweans were living outside the country.

Only when the full census results came out later was it seen that the main reason for the difference between the actual population and the expected population was the fall in the birth rate. The "missing millions" had never been born.

Of course, we now know better. The Ministry of Education, Art, Sports and Culture has been crying for 15 years for more books, more laboratories, for computers in classrooms, for better pay for teachers, and for a whole lot of other things to boost the quality of education.

It has not been making a major issue about building more schools or more classrooms, except perhaps in some resettlement areas, because school enrolments are only inching up each year, something we should expect if birth rates had come close to replacement levels during the 1990s, as they did.

Of course emigration and the HIV pandemic have had their effects on our population. We would imagine, taking sober figures from foreign countries, that around 500 000 Zimbabweans live outside the country, with over half that total in South Africa, where they try and keep track of Zimbabweans, and the rest scattered around the world.

Because Zimbabwe was the pioneer in sub-Saharan Africa in providing full primary and secondary education for all its children, and especially its girls, it is the first in the region to see the falling birth rates, although others such as Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are now there as well.

This is a worldwide trend. It used to be thought that birth rates only started falling when a country moved into a developed status; what was missed was that until recent decades only developed countries had universal education and health care.

The rapid spread of these two fundamental social services, even in the poorest countries, has led to estimates that the global population will never rise above 8 billion. And critically Zimbabwe is likely to plateau out at well under 20 million.

This huge demographic dividend, if we can just take advantage of it, gives us two generations of low dependency ratios. That is we have for the next few decades fairly small percentages of people not in the working age; eventually pensioners will fill the gaps left by smaller numbers of children per family, but not just yet.

The economic miracles of Europe and North America in the first half of the last century; the economic miracles of Asia in the second half and the incredible rise in average wealth per person now being seen in South America can be ours as well.

With a population growth rate of just 1,1 percent, and that is likely to drift slowly down, any economic growth above that figure means the average person has more money. Even quite modest growth rates mean we can double our gross national product per capita in less than a decade and moving towards Asian averages can mean an easy tripling.

This places a priority on sustainable economic growth. A lot of present problems just vanish with such growth. For example, if the economy doubles, tax revenues probably double.

Yet if the number of children in school just inches up then we can spend twice as much as we do now on each child. If the population is almost stable then the number of civil servants remains almost stable, yet if the economy triples, and so tax revenue triples, we can triple their pay.

We only have a little over 30 years before the baby boomers of the early 1980s hit retirement and we return to the old days of half our population either in school or on pension. Those three decades are what will make or break Zimbabwe and we better make the most of them.

If we can reach developed status in 30 years, and with our resources there is no reason why we cannot, then our children will live in a magnificent country. If we fail we doom them to poverty.

Census results are there to help planners. And the 2002 and 2012 censuses reveal we are already living in what should be the most exciting decades economically for our people.

We have some things right already, schooling for all probably being the greatest post-independence success of all although we need more technical colleges to supplement the incredible growth in universities.

Now we need a sustained effort to race for growth and a decent life for all.

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