It is true that the African population is very youthful, with 406 million young people aged 15-34, and 486 million children aged 0-14 years according to UN Population estimates.
The continent has the highest child-dependency rate in the world. For every 100 working age persons in Africa, there are approximately 73 children under 15-year olds who are dependent.
The population is estimated to double from 1 billion in 2010 to 2.4 billion by 2050. In 32 African countries, more than 40 per cent of their population is below 15 years old.
Similarly, some 11 million youth are expected to enter Africa’s labour market every year for the next decade, as per World Bank figures. By 2070, it is projected that Africa will have over 1 billion working age youth and over 800 million children.
The biggest puzzle facing African leaders today is how to turn its population into agents of sustainable development. Investment in young people to harness demographic dividend remains crucial.
Demographic Dividend (DD), as defined by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), means “the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older).”
This shift in population age structure can yield economic benefits if only the change is accompanied by sustained investments in education, skills development, health, job creation and good governance.
This change can boost economic growth through increased productivity of the comparatively large proportion of working-age population.
However, it is important to note that the DD is not automatic nor guaranteed; the country will have to wisely invest in interventions that will simultaneously accelerate fertility decline to open the window of opportunity for the DD, increase investments in human capital development, economic reforms to create an enabling environment for the private sector to flourish and make the economy competitive at global level and generate more jobs for its increasing workforce.
The pillars or wheels of DD (Education, Health/Family Planning, Economic reform and Governance) are interconnected; they reinforce each other; and should be implemented concomitantly in order to allow the country to benefit from sustained growth resulting from the demographic dividend.
Like cogs in a wheel, each is fundamental to the functioning of the rest. If one of the wheel collapses or is dysfunctional, all the remaining wheels will not help moving the machine, thereby limiting the extent to which a country can reap the demographic dividend.
To conclude, I will highlight three critical points for consideration as we discuss Demographic Dividend:
First: Making the right investments to create that demographic transition: This transition begins as fertility and mortality rates start to decline, leading to a larger working age population that is dependent and younger. The dividend comes when resources are used for economic development, and for greater per capita spending on higher quality health and education services, employment generation and putting in place the infrastructures for efficient public service delivery. Making the most of the demographic dividend depends heavily on appropriate public policy choices and investments made before or during the demographic transition, as the country moves from high death and fertility to low death and fertility with accompanying investments.
Second: The demographic dividend is limited in time and requires immediate preparatory investments. This window of opportunity for African countries to harness the demographic dividend opens for limited time. If the change in age structure resulting in the youth bulge happens in the absence of adequate investments in critical areas such as health, education and job creation, then a country is unlikely to earn a sizeable dividend.
Third: The centrality of investing in adolescent girls and empowering our women. Many girls in the Africa region are subjected to child marriage, early and unplanned pregnancies, limited access to health care and inadequate education. Effective demographic transition will only materialise if young girls and women are empowered through education and have the right information on sexual and reproductive health issues that allow them making the right informed choices.
The writer is UNFPA Rwanda Assistant Representative