Africa’s Strategic Priority: Family Size

Suppose that you were the president of Niger, a landlocked West African country more than four times the size of Italy but with 80 percent of its territory straddling the Sahara Desert. You’d find it hard to provide for your population. 14 percent of your 24 million compatriots are suffering from severe or chronic food insecurity, and 47 percent of the children from chronic malnutrition. You’d also struggle to educate your people and afford them decent jobs. The adult literacy rate is 35 percent, and the female school attendance ratio stands at 46 percent for primary education and at 13 percent for secondary education. For a potential labor force in the vicinity of 9 million, total employment in Niger outside of the agricultural sector compounds to about 350,000 people — some 200,000 among them work in the so-called “informal” sector of the economy, which is unregulated and doesn’t provide the state with any tax revenue. Last year, roughly 350,000 young Nigeriens – the equivalent of the entire workforce in the formal economy – arrived as newcomers on the job market. In 2035, they will be twice that number.

Niger also faces a jihadist insurgency, a spill-over from neighboring Mali that has since taken roots in the country. Last year, more than 500,000 people in Niger needed shelter, half of them internally displaced persons (IDPs), the other half refugees from neighboring countries equally affected by Islamist warfare. Niger counts one soldier for 2,179 inhabitants – in peaceful Senegal, the equivalent number is 852 inhabitants – and its army must secure 5,834 km of borders, almost twice the length of the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. While Niger is spending its meager resources on fighting jihadism, it cannot invest more in public health care – there are currently 4 doctors for each 100,000 inhabitants, two hundred times less than in Italy – or in irrigation schemes while the average yearly temperature in the Sahel region is already rising at a faster clip than the world average.

What, then, ought to be your top priority if you held executive power in Niger? Which one of the myriad challenges, if met with all that you and a supportive donor community could throw at it, would most fundamentally change the situation in your country for the better? The answer is not self-evident but demonstrably unequivocal: nothing shapes the future of a poor country more than family size. The smaller the family unit, the healthier and better educated will be its children, and the more empowered will be the women in societies that are often still deeply patriarchic. In Niger, the median age for “women” to marry is 16 years, and the rate of adolescent pregnancies is the highest in the world.

Smaller families raise the median age of the population in poor and – this is most often synonymous – youthful countries. They eventually push the median age above the threshold of 25 years (in Italy, the median age is 47 years), which typically triggers the so-called “demographic dividend” – a cluster of structural advantages for rapid and sustained economic growth due to a favorable “dependency rate” between the members of the workforce and the young and the elderly for whom they provide. At the current pace of its demographic transition, Niger, where a woman has on average 7 children and the median age of the population is barely over 15 years, will not reach this window of opportunity before 2075-2080, according to the medium-fertility projection of the UN Population Division (2019).

Despite an impressive economic growth rate (6.2 percent on average) between 2010 and 2017, which resulted in doubling its GDP, Niger has only modestly benefitted from that windfall as two thirds of the additional wealth have been “absorbed” by the rapidly growing number of its population. At independence in 1960, the country counted some 3.4 million inhabitants, today there are about 24 million Nigeriens, and in 2040 they will be 50 million. Against this backdrop, a smaller family size would mean less food insecurity and less job seekers each year coming to a market where, for the moment, the entire workforce in the formal sector of the economy would need to vacate their jobs for the newcomers to find employment – for only one year before being ousted in turn.

If there were less unemployed youth, especially young men, the support basis of jihadism would be so much smaller. What Westerners perceive as a global terrorist threat looks in the local mirror much more like “theocratic populism” (Farooq Kperogi). Across Africa, Islamist militants tip the balance of power in the conflicts that oppose the privileged happy few and the mass of have-nots, nomadic pastoralists and sedentary peasants fighting over land use rights, secessionists and nationalists, elders in power and youthful rebels, or rival traffickers of petroleum, cigarettes, or fake drugs, if not of human beings. Many people have lost hope in an inhabitable future that would not be shaped by extreme koranic strictures and violence against “infidels”.

Democracy – not its ephemeral advent but its sustainable existence – hinges on smaller families. Not so much because of attainment levels in formal education that condition an enlightened understanding of one’s civic rights and duties (a nexus that populism in Europe and the US has called into question). But, rather, because democracy in very youthful countries appears more an age-based privilege than a majoritarian right: in Niger, to stick with this example, almost 60 percent of the population is younger than 18 years, the legal voting age in that country (as in almost all other African states). In Italy, the proportion of the population too young to have a say in the nation’s destiny via the ballot box is 9.5 percent.

“But small families are un-African and incompatible with Islam!” – that’s what we heard, time and again, from hand-wringing donors while we were touring European capitals (London, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris) last November to disseminate the findings of a study on the near future of the Western Sahel. Really? Hasn’t, for instance, Bangladesh pulled it off? Isn’t Tunisia today the only North African country where the hopes of the “Arab Spring” are still flickering because Habib Bourguiba, the country’s “father of Independence”, brought fertility down and empowered women? Isn’t Botswana at least a partial success story, and aren’t several Eastern African states – Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi – on the fast lane to the “demographic window”? Finally, didn’t president Thomas Sankara promote a reproductive turnaround as part of his “revolution” in the mid-1980s in Burkina Faso, one of Niger’s neighbors? It may be past time, for donors and Africans alike, to realize that, if reproductive habits were holy cows, humankind would still sit in caves painting them on walls.