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Opinions of Friday, 16 October 2015

Columnist: Dede Amanor-Wilks

The population boom and the ‘youth bulge’

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Ghana’s population, now close to 27 million, is projected to double to 60 million by 2050 before tapering off, the Daily Graphic reported recently. For some that is alarming news. For a forward-looking government in charge of a growing economy, it could be a promise of wealth.

Those who see population growth as bad news tend to look at it with apocalyptic Malthusian lenses. Malthus predicted that agricultural production would not keep pace with population increase and that pestilence, plague and famine would bring the numbers back in check. Amazingly Malthus, who developed his doom and gloom population theory in the 18th century, has continued to influence generations of demographers and policy makers.

For decades the UN Population Fund (UNFPA – once known as the UN Family Planning Agency) operated on the basis of this Malthusian logic. And many of us fell into line.

Twenty years ago, as the Africa director of IPS news agency based in Harare, I oversaw the training of journalists in population issues. UNFPA was our biggest donor and our focus was on birth control. Those were the days when people outside Africa complained that Africans were “breeding like rabbits”.

After returning to postgraduate studies some years later, I discovered that the Malthusian thesis had given way to a more stimulating way of looking at things. Ester Boserup, writing in the 1960s, observed that rising population density led to innovation in agriculture and to technological change.

Boserup’s basic lesson is that necessity caused by growing population pressure on land is the mother of invention.

I also discovered that some economic historians use high population density as a proxy for wealth in eras for which no statistics are available.

In West Africa, for example, Kano in the north of Nigeria had the greatest concentration of both population and wealth in the 19th century.

In Ghana’s economic history, the rise of population under the Asante empire and the establishment of the Asante court at Kumase gave rise to innovations and the growth of a wide range of craft industries, including gold working, silk weaving, brass casting, woodcarving, bead moulding, basket making, etc.

Another way of looking at it is that it is labour that creates capital, and not the other way around. Without labour, capital will remain in the ground as gold, bauxite, manganese, diamonds and on the ground as unpicked cocoa pods and palm kernels.

Thus one of the greatest mistakes of Prime Minister Kofi Busia’s government was to sack foreign workers in Ghana under the 1969 Aliens Compliance Order.

During the boom period that followed Ghana’s independence in 1957, labourers had flocked to Ghana’s cocoa farms and mines from neighbouring countries including Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, and from as far away as Mali.

After these labourers were deported, the Ghanaian economy slowed down as Ghana entered what is known as the ‘lost decade’ of the 1970s. External factors such as the oil price shocks accelerated the decline.

Today we can more clearly see the effect of population in creating wealth. Nigeria, the giant of Africa with a population of more than 170 million, is already the biggest economy of Africa. With the kind of policies that President Buhari is already manifesting, Nigeria could become a global economic powerhouse.

With a population of 90 million, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa after Nigeria. It is also the 5th fastest growing economy in Africa having averaged 10.7% GDP growth over the past decade, according to African Leadership magazine.

Once considered a basket case, Ethiopia’s socialist-inspired policies have shown that with vision, political will and tight discipline, even the poorest country in Africa can use its population advantage to become a showcase for the continent.

By contrast tiny Botswana, though rich in diamonds, has to import much of its skilled labour to make up for the limitations of its small population of 2 million.

Today even UNFPA is coming to terms with the positive potential of a burgeoning African population.

Working in close collaboration with the Addis Ababa-based UN Economic Commission for Africa, UNFPA is focusing its attention less on population control and more on getting African governments to recognise what is touted as the “youth bulge” and to put policies in place to reap the population dividend that this youth bulge can deliver.

The two organisations say that Africa’s ability to harness one of its biggest assets, its youthful population, will yield accelerated economic growth. But this must happen before the population peaks.

Of course, today there are genuine environmental concerns about the pressure of population on our small planet. And the time is coming when we will have our optimal population relative to our land surface and labour force.

But let’s keep in mind one thing. The policy that is proven to work best when it comes to lowering the reproductive rate of a country is to educate all the women.

With quality education, women have greater options available to them, some more appealing than repeat motherhood.

So while we wait for free universal education policies to deliver, the question becomes: Are our governments forward looking and will they know what to do with all the new young people who will be joining us in this country?

Will we have good schools and jobs for them to occupy in 10 or 20 years? As the pressure on land increases, will we know what policies to put in place to transform the skills and labour power of all the new young people into wealth-creating industries that can generate jobs for all?

The author is a journalist and development specialist.