I had ended my last post by stating that I was going to explain Africa’s population explosion and the west’s lack of it. I ended by saying the west (and increasingly, Asia) are the beneficiaries of what is known as the demographic transition.
The demographic transition refers to a phenomenon where there is a shift from high birth rates and high death rates in societies with minimal technology, education (especially of women) and economic development, to low birth rates and low death rates in societies with advanced technology, education and economic development, as well as the stages between these two scenarios . As can be seen from the graph above, the transition is divided into 5 stages. Stage 1 is characterized by high birth rates and high death rates. During this stage, the society evolves in accordance with the Malthusian paradigm, with population essentially determined by the food supply. Any fluctuations in food supply tend to translate directly into population fluctuations. In stage 2, the death rates drop quickly due to improvements in food supply and sanitation, which increase life expectancy and reduce disease. This is the stage that characterizes developing nations. The resulting fall in death rates tends to lead to a population explosion. In stage 3, birth rates begin to fall rapidly as a result marked economic progress, an expansion in women’s status and education, and access to and use of contraception. In stage 4, both birth rates and death rates are low. At this stage it is possible for birth rates to dip below death rates and thus have a shrinking population as is the case in Japan.
The advanced countries of the West, and of East Asia (Japan being the most prominent here) are at stage 4. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa is at stage 2 but a handful of them namely, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Kenya, Gabon and Ghana have begun to move to stage 3 . Some observers believe that many Sub-Saharan African nations are stuck in stage 2 as a result of stagnant development . It should be of concern to us that countries are vulnerable to becoming failed states in the absence of progressive governments at this stage. No country is yet to experience stage 5. Of course, it is important to remember that that the demographic transition is just a general picture and not a specific description of the path each individual country goes through.
There are competing explanations as to why the demographic transition happens. A leading explanation is that people undergo a change in values as their country industrializes. Some of the value changes include greater emphasis on female education, and delayed marriage age. Also important is that successful industrialization arguably provides the greatest opportunities for people to be gainfully in the formal economy. This crucially gives people access to steady employment and retirement benefits like pension plans. Pension plans reduce the incentive to have large families. Prior to the establishment of the formal economy, adult children were the primary form of insurance for adults in old age . To the extent that we do not industrialize, is the extent to which we keep people dependent on adult children as their pension, and hence, the incentive to have large families remain, with the attendant risks of serious social unrest, stemming from the inadequate resources required for a burgeoning population. This is what drives many of Africa’s poor to have large families. They are not stupid. Their actions are entirely rational. We ‘educated’ Africans need to understand that illiteracy isn’t the same thing as stupidity. You can be illiterate and smart. You can also be educated and stupid. Furthermore, preparing children to be members of the formal economy is expensive and this further reduces the incentive to have large families. Contrast that with raising children to help you work your small plot for your subsistence farming. The cost of raising children in this case is barely more than the cost of feeding.
You shouldn’t think the attitudes of Africa’s poor towards child-bearing is unique to Africans. Europe’s poor behaved exactly the same way 200-300 years ago before the Industrial Revolution, because they were trapped in the exact same socioeconomic conditions that Africa’s poor today, finds itself in. I am highlighting this because I want to make two general points; Values, and hence culture is not static; Some values, hence, some aspects of culture are universal. I would like to elaborate further on these two points.
The above discussion on the democratic transition should make it clear that each stage of socioeconomic development imposes its own values on a given society. So inasmuch that the culture of a people is derived from its values, culture is by nature, meant to be an inherently fluid concept. In simple words, culture is not set in stone but is meant to change as the prevailing realities in the environment demand it. On the second point, as a result of a lack of exposure to history, and to other groups of people and their respective cultures, people of a certain group often think their outlook and values are unique to them and that such outlooks and values have not been held by other people at any point in history, hence they are led to the mistake that there is nothing to be gained from the experience of other people. Some values have shown themselves to be universal in the sense that they have the potential to be held by all people. They just haven’t been held by all people at the same time.
There is a very big danger that awaits countries that don’t make it out of stage 2 (which I previously mentioned is the stage which most of Sub-Saharan Africa is in) known as the demographic trap. The demographic trap refers to a situation where countries in stage 2 remain stuck because they are not creating enough economic development to match their explosive population growth, resulting in increasing poverty, which in a very pernicious way, encourages even more population growth because even more people find themselves trapped outside the formal economy and therefore look to adult children as their pension plans in their old age , which of course, increases poverty. It is a vicious cycle. If things get really bad a stage 2 country might find itself experiencing a reversal and find itself headed back to stage 1 . According to Population Action International (PAI), a global think-tank and advocacy group, this reversal has already started in Nigeria . PAI claimed this had happened as far back as 2006. It is needless to say that such a scenario seriously increases the potential for civil conflict. Two globally renowned scholars, have gone on record to claim that the Rwandan genocide was ultimately the result of population pressure. One of them, Edward O. Wilson , famous for developing the field of sociobiology and for discovering the first colony of fire ants in the United States as a secondary school student, pointed out in his remarkable book Consilience, that between 1950 and 1994, the population of Rwanda more than tripled from about 2.5 million to 8.5 million; that it had the highest growth rate in the world in 1992 with 8 children per woman. He claims that the overpopulation and the dwindling resources were the inflammable material that were finally lit by the match of ethnic tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis .
I had started this post by explaining the demographic transition. I had also mentioned that industrialization has been recognized as being key to bringing this transition about. Sub-Saharan Africa’s relatively feeble attempts at industrialization put much of it at risk of being caught in the demographic trap or worse, the Malthusian trap. The stakes are just too high not for us not to take this issue seriously.
- Wikipedia article on the demographic transition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_transition
- Wikipedia article on the demographic trap https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_trap
- Leahy, Elizabeth Nov 2006 ‘Demographic Development: Reversing Course?’ http://www.populationaction.org/resources/researchCommentaries/Nov06_AgeStructure.htm
- Wikipedia article on Edward Wilson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson
- Wilson, Edward. 1998 Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. UK: Abacus