What Fertility Rates in Africa Tell Us About Global Development

Written by Hannah Evans, Communications Manager | Published: October 19, 2018

The key thing you can do to reduce population growth is actually [to] improve health.”

– Bill Gates

The UN estimates that world population is projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050 – an increase of over two billion people in just thirty years. If you’re concerned about the environment (and I’m willing to bet you are), that prediction is probably really scary to you, especially in the wake of recent warnings from the world’s leading climate scientists. And honestly, I hope you do find that scary. What’s happening to the climate is almost as terrifying as our unwillingness to address the issue. Consider your frightened reaction an enlightened one, in this case.

Environmental degradation in almost all forms, including habitat destruction, pollution, toxic emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, and ecological collapse, among many others, are in many cases exacerbated by population growth. While this link seems undeniable, it is often misunderstood: a singular correlation between population and environmental catastrophe is, in fact, a dangerous oversimplification.

To be clear, the implication that rapid population growth alone is at fault for environmental damage is both antiquated and untrue. Climate change is undoubtedly driven most intensely by macro-level exploitation of resources and the comparatively lavish consumption patterns of affluent populations.

Environmental pressures are aggravated most by populations who use more resources per-capita, and whose cultural and political identity aligns growth with conspicuous consumption (we all know who we’re talking about here–ahem, U.S.; cough, cough, Europe!).

That said, rapid population growth in regions that are expected to experience economic growth via industrialization and urbanization does carry environmental implications. For example, one demographer has predicted that a 40% reduction in developed countries’ carbon use by 2050 would be outweighed by population growth, and the resulting carbon emissions, in the developing world alone. This shows that population growth directly relates to emissions even in places such as much of Africa, where resource use is very low.

Regarding population growth, it’s important to note that as the world population continues to soar, fertility rates are highest in specific places–most of Africa, parts of the Middle East, parts of Latin America, and parts of Asia. In fact, by 2050, Africa is set to grow faster than anywhere else: there were 1 billion Africans in 2010, but that number will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050.

So how and why do fertility rates vary across the globe? Currently, many regions throughout the world maintain total fertility rates at or below replacement level, or 2.0. The U.S., for example, has a fertility rate of about 1.76, which implies that the average woman will have that many children. Canada’s fertility rate is 1.6, Spain’s is 1.5, South Korea’s is 1.24, Japan’s is 1.46, Chile’s is 1.75.

In contrast, Malawi’s fertility rate is 5.05 births per woman, Tanzania’s is estimated to be 4.9, Niger’s is 6.62, Burundi’s is 6.04, Mali’s is 5.96. Africa’s overall population is set to reach three times that of Europe by 2050. And, if UN forecasts remain true, sub-Saharan Africa will have four billion people in 2100.

Africa presents somewhat of a unique case for population stabilization, because changes are projected to occur at much slower rates in comparison to regions like Asia and Latin America. In general, but in particular for women, increased access to resources such as healthcare, education, and economic opportunity equate to lower fertility rates. However, that hasn’t been the case across the board in Africa: after stagnating economically in the 1990s, countries like Nigeria and Tanzania became wealthier in the 2000s, but their fertility rates remained relatively the same. Urbanization hasn’t had a direct impact in many places either; for example, West Africa is much more urban than east Africa, but has a higher overall fertility rate.

One major factor at play regarding Africa’s high fertility is that of stifled economic growth. High fertility has the propensity to weigh heavily in economic terms: Sub-Saharan Africa’s dependency ratio (the population younger than 20 and older than 64 versus the population between those ages) is 129:100, compared with 65:100 in Europe. Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have a worse dependency ratio than Europe even into 2050.

High fertility is also viewed as a global problem, because as the whole of humanity continues to become wealthier, high birth rates in the poorest parts of the world’s countries make poverty, increasing school enrollment, and combating disease infinitely more difficult to address or solve. The poorest places on the planet also have the highest fertility rates, the highest rates of maternal and child mortality, and the highest unmet need for contraception. Children (girls, in particular) born in a resource-scarce environment are inherently more at risk of remaining poor, suffering from lack of education, malnutrition, and economic opportunity. In this way, high fertility rates and low economic status virtually institutionalize poverty.

Okay, wow. Lots of moving parts here. These issues are clearly complicated. Indeed, social and economic development in Africa is extremely multifaceted, and visibly fraught with legacies of colonialism, political corruption, and cultural barriers. But there are simple solutions that have the capacity to drastically change the picture. For one, more African governments could actively promote family planning. Family planning, or the education and healthcare necessary for women and families to plan the timing of their births, is integral to raising the standard of living in any given place. It reduces infant and maternal mortality rates, increases rates of education, reduces poverty, and slows population growth.

Currently, there are over 214 million women in developing regions who wish to avoid pregnancy but are not currently using any form of contraceptive. Women and couples who wish to have fewer children are unable to determine the size of their families in large part because of state restrictions, a severe lack of family planning funding from abroad, and an overall lack of resources more broadly. Making family planning widely and voluntarily accessible will help people plan for the family size they want. It is a relatively simple resource directly linked to improved quality of life, educational access and economic opportunity for entire communities and countries.

Several countries in Africa have implemented policies and outreach strategies meant to promote family planning. Ethiopia, Malawi, and Rwanda have done so, and have subsequently experienced lower birth rates at a faster pace than average. Other countries that have made noticeable strides towards increasing use of family planning methods:

  • The Kenyan government has invested in clinics and educational materials, which have resulted in major increases in contraceptive use (household surveys show that 53% of married Kenyan women used effective contraception in 2014, up from 32% in 2003).
  • The greatest fertility decline in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 40 years has occurred in Botswana, where ambitious family planning programs were established after the country gained independence in 1966. Fifty years ago, the average Botswanan woman had an average of seven children. Now, she has fewer than three.

Population growth and environmental degradation represent concepts that are interconnected and complex. Global inequality, resource use and consumption patterns, and political economy contribute to and worsen the effects of climate change at levels much higher than those of population growth alone, especially because fertility rates remain highest in low-resource settings. However, population growth must be addressed as part of the solution, as it is impossible to combat environmental problems without paying attention to population pressures, too.  As environmentalists, then, we should use this knowledge reflexively, and apply it to our daily lives–as both as consumers and as voters. As humanitarians, we need to acknowledge the associations between between fertility and poverty, and work to ensure that everyone has access to the resources necessary for an autonomous life.

One way we can help solve this issue is to ensure that the U.S. government increases international family planning aid. Currently, the biggest barrier created by the U.S. is the Global Gag Rule , which actually prevents countries that receive U.S. aid from providing comprehensive reproductive healthcare and family planning services. Additionally, we can work to restore U.S. funding to the UNFPA–an organization that is essential to the success of family planning services worldwide, particularly in some of the world’s most at-risk places.