Africa’s Population Boom: Will It Mean Disaster or Economic and Human Development Gains?

Latest Issue: 
  • October 2015


  • A new World Bank report notes that the slow decline of fertility rates in Africa will likely result in a rapidly growing population of youth, with the region becoming a much larger part of the world population
  • Government policies and actions today will increase the likelihood of capturing the potential social and economic benefits from population growth, according to the report
  • Report recommendations include harnessing the demographic dividend by empowering women and girls by improving their health, education and skills, and providing them with greater decision-making power

WASHINGTON, October 22, 2015 — The population in Africa is rapidly expanding, and by 2060 the region will hold an estimated 2.8 billion people. With the right policies and actions, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can reap a tremendous demographic dividend from this growth to propel an economic takeoff, according to a new World Bank report.

The report, Africa’s Demographic Transition: Dividend or Disaster? notes that demographic change such as population growth and a reduction  in the number of dependent youth, can have a deep impact on a country’s economic growth and the well-being of families. The report lays out anagenda for African countries that can increase the likelihood of capturing the potential social and economic benefits from population growth to create a demographic dividend in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, it poses a challenging dilemma if the right policies and actions are not implemented judiciously.

“The growth in Africa’s working-age population will be relentless and inevitable,” said Punam Chuhan-Pole, acting chief economist for the World Bank Africa region. “The good news is that with the right policies and actions today, countries can accelerate the region’s transition to smaller families, healthier and better-educated youth, and an expanded job market if policymakers make the right decisions.”

For the past 15 years, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have experienced impressive and sustained economic growth and development. Child mortality has dropped in most countries and fertility rates, or the number of children born per woman, have significantly been cut for educated women living in urban areas. Throughout the region, however, fertility remains stubbornly high, with an average of 5.4 children born per women in 2005–2010, and down from 6.5 children per woman in 1950–1955.

The slow decline in fertility in Africa will likely result in a rapidly growing population, with estimates showing that the region will become a much larger part of the world population. By 2060 there will be about 10 billion people in the world—5.2 billion in Asia, 2.8 billion in Africa, 1.3 billion in the Americas, 0.7 billion in Europe, and 0.1 billion in the rest of the world.

How will this population boom impact African countries? The answer depends on how each country responds today with policies, the report says. Policy choices and actions can transform the population of a nation into a healthy, educated, empowered labor force that can contribute to real and sustained economic growth that lifts people out of poverty, according to the report.

The report contrasts the demographic changes in Africa with those in East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. For example, from 1975 to 2010, East Asia experienced a rapid decline in fertility that reduced youth dependency and at the same time increased the number of working-age people (16–64 years old). The resulting demographic was 1.5 workers per new birth in the early years, hitting a peak of 2.5 workers per birth over 35 years.

At the same time, East Asia capitalized on export-oriented policies that increased the demand for labor. With more working adults, and fewer children per family in East Asia, resources were freed to allow families and the government to invest more in child education and health care, providing for a healthier cohort of working adults with skills, ready to move into the economy’s expanding job market.

The report also takes a regional approach to outlining the potential for a demographic dividend and presents broad recommendations that can begin to tackle the challenges and build on recent successes, such as: 

  • Harnessing the demographic dividend means empowering women and girls by improving their health, education and skills, and providing them with greater market, social, and decision-making power
  • In countries where fertility is falling and the working-age share is rising, the focus should be on creating high-productivity employment for the large working-age cohort and encouraging investments in the health and education of the smaller youth cohort
  • In more mature economies, with larger formal sectors, the focus should be on generating domestic savings and female labor force participation outside the home
  • Ensuring sufficient savings for retirement will also address the issue of an aging population that will emerge as the demographic transition comes to an end
  • In fragile states, a lack of security may make any interventions difficult. Here the emphasis should be placed on maintaining child health, access to health care, and family planning, where possible, to develop the preconditions for a demographic dividend