Discussion on Africa’s demography and population growth has often been handicapped by narrow and fragmented framing. But what if we reframed these discussions?
A decade ago, I supported a team of demographers studying whether African countries could benefit from the demographic dividend, that sweet spot when a country’s working age population outnumbers its dependent population of children and elderly, making economic growth easier to achieve. My task was to review policy plans regarding things like health facilities, education and urban amenities. The majority of targets for supplying crucial services in the plans I read were outstripped by the projected number of children and adults in coming years. Planned schools were not keeping up with the number of expected school-age children. The planned capacity of power plants was not in line with rising urban populations. Planning, let alone turning those plans into reality, is difficult when populations are growing fast. This I appreciate.
What I appreciate less is how debates about the need to limit population growth in Africa are framed. Fred Pearce, author of The Coming Population Crash, points out that population issues are among the most toxic headline grabbers. Over history there certainly has been an unhelpful dose of toxicity, explicit or hidden, in the Western regard of non-Western population growth. In 2017, when French president Macron hectoringly opined at a G20 summit on the futility of spending on aid as long as African women were having seven or eight children, he was following in the footsteps of a long line of blunt Malthusian theorists, as well as getting the data wrong. African women in 2017 on average had 4.8 children, and in some countries the rate was as low as 1.4 children.
Discussion on demography has often been handicapped by narrow and fragmented framing. But what if we reframed population discourses, by widening and shifting the frame? The widening of the frame on African population growth, to consider history, power relations and context, is essential especially for outsiders interested in true dialogue on Africa’s demography. A wider frame is necessary to avoid illogical or suspicious conclusions that elicit knee-jerk defensiveness or fall on deaf ears. At this point in history with couples in a record number of countries having fewer children than needed to keep national populations constant, it is also interesting for Africans to shift the frame. To shift and ask: what lies on the other side? What potential civilizational problems await us when population control is achieved?
WIDENING THE FRAME
Many demographers today, whether Western or non-Western, understand well the nuances of their science, and take care to recognize the caveats to any predictions or prescriptions they make. This unfortunately is rarely the case with politicians, pundits and the press.
One cardinal lapse that outsiders proffering population prescriptions to Africa make is ignoring history. In 1500, the populations of Europe, China and Africa each stood at roughly 85 million inhabitants. By 1900, the population of the first two had risen beyond 400 million, whilst Africa’s stood at only 118 million. The Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades took away up to 100 million Africans, slowing down population growth considerably. Abuses during European colonization resulted in further deaths; up to 10 million in King Leopold’s Congo according to some historians. These demographic traumas were followed by a period of global eugenicist enthusiasm that targeted the darker races disproportionately with forced sterilizations. When history is considered, one easily understands why outsider prescriptions may be met with suspicion.
Africa’s population has since bounced back: in 2019, it equalled China’s population at 1.3 billion. However, at 48 inhabitants per square kilometre, the average African population density stands at only a tenth of India’s, a fifth of the UK’s, and a third of densities in China or the EU. Any student of economic history learns that industrialization in European countries was spurred by densification of their populations. Suddenly enough people were amassed in relatively small areas to make investments worthwhile. Low-density Scandinavian countries were able to drive their development through judicious exploitation of their natural resources free from interference from colonizers.
Densities vary widely across Africa. Hilly and fertile Rwanda and Burundi have densities of over 400. Africa’s most populous country Nigeria has a density of 215, similar to Germany’s. Niger, one of the few countries with a birth rate close to Macron’s alleged ‘seven to eight’ children per woman has a density of just 18. African economies that generate the most excitement tend to have higher densities: Ghana’s is 131, Côte d’Ivoire’s is 79, and Ethiopia which, before its conflict broke out was a darling for foreign manufacturing investment, has a density of 97. Diamond-rich Botswana, with a density of 4 is one of the few low-density African countries with good economic performance. Like the Scandinavian countries before it, Botswana avoided the “Dutch disease” resource curse, obliging mining firms to pay a fair share of revenues to the state while keeping corruption in check. But it has no manufacturing industry.
Arguing for population control in low-density countries therefore needs careful explanation. If the prescription comes from an economic perspective, one needs to make explicit what development model is being pursued to not appear illogical. Conventional economic development models (which we know today to have serious flaws on the environmental front) actually call for greater densification. This is not to say that high population density will automatically equal economic development. The current diverging trajectories of Rwanda and Burundi highlight the extent to which policies outside the realm of population matter to actualize development potential.
Closely linked to the density issue is the fact that on the geopolitical chess board, population size in many ways equals power. In the 1960s, the West looked at India and China’s large populations as tragic mouths to feed. By the 2000s, Western governments and companies salivated over their enormous consumer markets. This trend is also observed with Africa. Market-driven afro-optimism coincided with Africa’s population passing the 1 billion mark in 2009. Big consulting firms like McKinsey suddenly issued gushing reports on the potential of Africa’s consumer markets. Western companies now have to jostle with Indian, Chinese, Turkish and Emirati investors keen on getting a slice of the African consumer. The emerging countries projected to be among the top 10 economies in 2030 are all are populous countries. From a geopolitical viewpoint the diktat to Africans to keep their population in check can be seen as a request that Africa muzzles itself.
Of course, geopolitics is a miserably cynical lens from which to consider the lives of human beings that make up a population. Téguéwindé Sawadogo of the think-tank, Burkina Thinks, reminds us that, ‘overpopulation is above all a problem of a mismatch between the number of inhabitants and the resources put at their disposal within a given territory.’ The capacity of African governments to provide their citizens with adequate education, health and infrastructure services is often weak. Population pressure is not always the main issue. If corruption were addressed, in many countries the resources available for Africans would be greatly augmented. There are myriad of (sadly, mostly missed) opportunities in Africa to, as Sawadogo puts it, adapt resources to the population rather than adapt the population to the resources.
Nonetheless, we live in a planet with finite resources. The environmental argument is probably the most powerful one for limiting population growth. One difficulty with environmental issues, as the climate crisis repeatedly tries to show us, is that it calls for systemic thinking. Some population environmentalists home in too much on high birth rates in developing countries and too little on the systemic issue of global consumption. Paul and Anne Erlich’s influential 1968 book The Population Bomb mainstreamed the idea that population control was necessary to avoid environmental collapse. Less known, is the extent to which the book also pointed at overconsumption in rich countries as a problem. Calling them ‘overdeveloped’ countries, the Erlich’s harangue rich countries for consuming a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources by co-opting minerals, energy and food from other regions, being major polluters and exporting their waste.
Since The Population Bomb was published, the ‘overdeveloped’ countries may have reined in their population growth, but they have not reined in their consumption. Their ecological footprints per person still far outstrip those of poor high-fertility countries: 8.3 for North America, 5 for the EU compared to 1.4 for Africa. The US which accounts for just 5 per cent of the global population is the world’s third largest consumer of freshwater resources, after China and India which each host almost 20 per cent of the world’s population. Sawadogo points out that because consumption in rich countries—one might add, among the rich in poor countries—is driven mostly by artificially-created needs (the need for water-hungry lawns for instance) that can be egged on infinitely by advertising, there is potentially no limit to overconsumption.
Too many people in one specific location can lead to localized environmental damage. However, focusing on reducing populations in regions where populations are still growing in order to save the planet, ignores the fact that addressing overconsumption in rich countries would produce greater and faster carbon savings. Moreover, the argument is all the more likely to fall on deaf ears in developing countries given the frequent alarm Western pundits and media express at the prospect of their own populations falling. The Menace of Underpopulation was a 1934 hit in Europe; today Western media is littered with articles warning of the ‘scary population implosion’ or how falling sperm rates may wipe out the Western population.
Pearce shows how the Irish Famine of 1845-49 provides us a lesson on the dangers of focusing on population numbers and failing to address issues of distribution and equity. On the eve of the famine, Ireland was the most densely populated country in Europe. The English, Pearce writes, spoke with disdain of ‘the careless, squalid, un-aspiring Irishman [who] multiplies like rabbits’. British policymakers enraptured by Malthusian ideas focused on ‘overbreeding’ in the Irish colony. Throughout the famine, however, Ireland continued to export beef bred on large estates held by settlers to England and its Caribbean colonies. Policymakers did not look to the issue of redistribution. A million Irish died, millions more emigrated, and Ireland only returned to its pre-famine population level in 2021.
In August 2021, a coalition of NGOs called on the UK government to open up its €13 billion climate fund for developing countries to contraception projects. This is the kind of poor thinking that exacerbated the Irish famine. That there are unmet needs for contraception in developing countries is not disputed. But funding for combatting climate change in poor countries is well below what the Paris Agreement calls for and there is still a mountain of unaddressed climate justice issues. Only very shaky rationale can justify using climate funds to prevent births of individuals who within the global system would contribute the least to climate change. If the family planning NGOs absolutely want to shift the focus away from investments in solar energy, fuel-efficient stoves or plain old reforestation, they should lobby for funds to be used in America, a high-consumer country with a high rate of unplanned teenage pregnancy. Based on carbon emissions per person, one fewer American birth would have the same impact as 150 fewer births in Niger. For that matter, why does reducing population for environmental reasons have to focus exclusively on human populations? Economist, Ra-Sablga Ouédraogo, points out that the large pet populations in rich countries are not insignificant contributors to overconsumption. If population environmentalists rarely target such dogs and cats it may be because, tragically, their lives hold greater weight than those of poor people on dark continents.
My aim is not to argue that population control is not an issue for Africa. The recurrent calamity of new-born babies abandoned in pit latrines across African towns and villages is a clear indication that women are not able to access contraception to the extent they would like to. The rich in Africa who can exercise options over their fertility, tend to have fertility rates quite close to those in rich countries wealthy enough to afford to have as many children as they like. If development is, as Burkinabe intellectual Joseph Ki-Zerbo proposed, the proliferation of choices that liberate, then ensuring that more couples in Africa can choose their family size is a clear developmental priority. But when outsiders point fingers naggingly at African population issues, my hope is just that they take a wide historical perspective, speak with humility and sensitivity, and avoid lazy thinking.
Now let’s shift the frame to look at what lies on the other side…
SHIFTING THE FRAME
I thought I only wanted two children, but later found myself yearning for my children to experience the relational dynamics I enjoyed growing up in a threesome. We went on to have our third child. Over the years, reading articles on low-fertility countries like Japan or Italy, I kept wondering what happens to a society when one or two children become the norm, that is, when children grow up with as many, or more adults than children in their family? Are there downsides to such concentrated parental attention? Italian films from the 1950s show children frolicking in the streets with minimal adult supervision. Contrast this with a scene I witnessed in a Tuscan waiting room in 2011: one vivacious toddler attempted to play, tracked hawkishly by the eight eyes of mother, father, and two grandparents. Luckily, for him, the other set of grandparents was absent.
The benefits of smaller families have featured prominently in debates on population policy—better health and educational outcomes, and easier wealth accumulation notably. But, aside from the pension headache, the negative effects of smaller families have received little attention. Before fertility in African countries perhaps swings to the other side of the pendulum—three countries are already under the global population replacement rate of 2.3 children per woman—Africans should start paying attention to the fine-grained detail of lower birth rates to decipher what potentially lies ahead for their countries.
Japan and China are interesting countries for an eye-opener on potential societal shifts that accompany low fertility. Japan in the 1800s was already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and birth control was regularly practised there through abortion and infanticide. In the 1950s, Japan became the first developing country to embark enthusiastically on population control using modern contraceptives. By 1957, Japan’s birth rate had fallen to 2.0 children per woman and it has remained a low-fertility country since. Its birth rate today stands at 1.3. The rate is pulled down by a large proportion of Japanese who do not have any children; those who do have children tend to have two rather than just one.
China’s birth rate like Japan’s is at 1.3, but family dynamics are slightly different. From 1979, China experimented the world’s most radical demographic shift through its one-child policy. Exceptions were made, notably for rural families, but the policy was quite strictly enforced in big cities. China thus has a very high proportion of only children, but not many childless couples. In 1995, 95 per cent of preschool children in urban China were only children. China is experiencing what American economist Nicholas Eberstadt terms a ‘radical atrophy of the extended family’. It takes only two generations of only children to arrive at a child not just without siblings, but also without cousins, aunts, or uncles. By 2050 a projected 7.6 per cent of Chinese under the age of 40 will have no cousins. This represents an eight-fold increase of the 2010 rate.
Allow me to dwell on this latter point. From an African context, the idea of no cousins is unfathomable. Many of my generation count cousins in dozens; my first 100 friends on Facebook were almost all cousins. I recall my shock the first time I met an adult in Italy who had no cousins; all she had were her parents, and an aunt. I thought should she choose to not have children that would be the abrupt end of centuries of an entire lineage. Not because of ill-fate, but simply atrophy. Would the ancestors ever forgive her? Italians might not ask themselves that question, but Chinese, who share a culture of ancestor worship with Africans might.
China’s one-child policy was loosened in 2015 to a two-child policy and again in 2021 to a three-child policy. So far, to little effect: Chinese family formation seems to have shifted permanently to a preference for one-child families.
China’s radical policy, from the 1980s incited societal debate on singletons and spawned new vocabularies. ‘4-2-1’ families to highlight the paring down of generations to one single individual caring for two parents and four grandparents. ‘Six-pocket’ children to describe singletons with doting parents and grandparents pampering the only child in the family. And the ‘little emperor’ syndrome giving voice to concerns that only children are overindulged.
Prejudice or lived experiences led some Chinese employers to include phrases like ‘no only children’ in job adverts. The army has expressed concern about the casualty tolerance of parents of singletons. Rising divorce rates in China may not just reflect liberalization of mores, but be spurred also by the rising number of adults who have grown up with little experience of compromise. 24-year-old Beijing resident Cheng divorced after just six months of marriage spent fighting over myriad small issues. The main lesson she took away from her experience: ‘Next time I will look for a husband with siblings.’ She may have taken away the right lesson: a 2006 study found that Chinese divorce rates when both spouses were only children were double the rates of couples where both spouses had siblings.
Most research on sibling size, or sibships, has focused on the negative impacts of large sibships linked to the dilution of monetary resources and parental time. Research on potential positive effects of larger sibships is recent. The rationale for these studies is that sibling relationships are a unique school of socialization, as they are both intimate and long-lasting. They may provide training in understanding other people’s emotions, managing conflict, and nurturing others. Chinese accounts of the singleton experience stress how intense parental expectations are today; more siblings dissipate such pressure. Many of the potential benefits of siblings can be provided by cousins but given the rise of the isolated nuclear family in modern societies this is increasingly rare.
One Chinese study tested adults born just before and just after the one-child policy to find differences between those who had siblings and those who were singletons. They found that singletons were less trusting towards others, less trustworthy themselves, took fewer risks, were less optimistic and less conscientious. The authors pointed out that because the youngest in their experiment were born in 1983, it was a generation that still had many cousins. Differences may be of greater magnitude for recent generations who have grown up with fewer cousins. However, a review of several Chinese studies found that the studies quite evenly contradicted each other: some studies found singletons wanting on desirable personality traits, others found they performed just as well or better as children with siblings.
An American study considered the effect of having more siblings on stability of marital relations. The study was designed to not just distinguish between singletons and adults with siblings, but to study how effects varied with sibship size. It found that for each additional sibling, an adult was 3 per cent more likely to get married in the first place, and then 3 per cent less likely to divorce. The study’s authors hypothesized that the larger a family became the more complex became the interactional dynamics, and more complex interpersonal skills were developed.
The atrophy of family, as experienced in the extreme in China, may thus according to some studies be lowering the capacity of people to interact with one another. Changing family dynamics may also be influencing human sexuality. In 2013, British newspaper, The Guardian, published a piece on the rise of sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘celibacy syndrome’ in Japan. The article was based on a Japanese study that found that 45 per cent of never-married women aged 16 to 24 and 25 per cent of men of the same category ‘were not interested in or despised sexual contact’. In the article, 22-year-old Eri Asada explained: ‘I gave up dating three years ago. I don’t miss boyfriends or sex. I don’t even like holding hands.’ More recent figures from the Japan’s 2015 National Fertility Survey show that the celibacy trend is entrenched. 42 per cent of never-married men aged 18 to 34 years had never had a sexual experience.
The 2013 Guardian article gave rise to a flurry of articles in the West that treated the issue as a sign of how bizarre Japanese society was. Some articles, however, expressed concern that Japan was merely at the avant-garde of a trend sweeping through many Western countries. In 2018, the American magazine, The Atlantic, ran a piece that asked ‘Why are Young People Having So Little Sex?’. Studies showed that American teens were launching their sex lives later: in 1991, 54 per cent of high school students had already had intercourse. In 2017 that proportion was 40 per cent. This was good news for teen pregnancies, yet combined with data from the US General Social Survey showing that adults of all ages were having sex fewer times a year than in 1990, there was enough disquiet to drive a 20-page exploration of the issue. The Atlantic article pointed out that decreased sexual activity had also been confirmed by studies in Britain, Australia and Finland.
Many complex and interlinked factors are undoubtedly at play in declining sexual activity. Prosaically for the middle-aged groups, lower rates of couples cohabiting in part explain less frequent sex. Despite what glamourous TV shows suggest, studies consistently find higher frequency of intercourse among couples that live together. However, statistics broken down by age group consistently find lower activity for just-over-18s than middle-aged adults.
In 1793 an English journalist, William Godwin predicted ‘an eclipsing of the desire for sex by the development of intellectual pleasures’. He may have been on to something albeit not in the form he expected. The omnipresence of screens and technology have undoubtedly, if not eclipsed sexual desire, diverted it to alternate outlets. All sex surveys reveal a rise in masturbation, fuelled by online pornography. From 1992 to 2014, US weekly masturbation rates doubled among men to 54%, for instance. Japan has gone beyond mainstream porn and is the pioneer in non-human sex aides, such as sex dolls and virtual reality sex. But now even the model of sex with another person is falling to the wayside, with new products aimed specifically at making solo sex more enjoyable, such as silicone eggs for men to masturbate into.
Numerous studies today relate how pornography is making normal sexual relations difficult. But it is also plausible that smaller family sizes are an indirect contributing factor. Concerning the rise of digitalized sex, it is hard to tease out to what extent this is a cause rather than a symptom of impoverished human relations. The turn to digital sex lives tells us the flight from intimacy is specifically a flight from human intimacy. This flight is more pronounced among younger generations than older generations. These young generations frequently complain about how complicated it is to approach the other sex. And so, some seek easier options. In 2009, a Japanese man made history marrying his virtual reality game girlfriend. ‘I feel like I’ve been able to achieve a major milestone in my life’ wrote the groom after the event. In the US, millennials find the prospect of chatting up a romantic interest in a bar, or in any face-to-face context, increasingly implausible, citing a lack of social skills. Rather than try to ‘read’ people, they would rather rely on dating applications where ‘there’s just no ambiguity’ explains a recent university graduate.
Initiating intimacy is obviously easier for people with greater interpersonal skills, with greater practice at reading other people’s emotions, with the habit of sharing intimate aspects of their lives with others. If the findings from studies on positive benefits of sibships prove robust, then falling family sizes may be stifling the ability to risk intimacy with other humans. Pew Research data shows that 63 per cent of American families in 2014 had two or less children, almost double the 1976 rate of 35 per cent. Within that demographic, the number of American families with just one child also doubled, standing at 22 per cent in 2014. In Japan, the proportion of married couples with just one child doubled between 1997 and 2015 according to the National Fertility Survey.
Specifically, with regard to teen sexuality, The Atlantic suggests that helicopter parenting—a parenting style in which parents are constantly hovering over their children—may be driving the delayed launch of sexual lives. Anxious parents, eager for their children’s success are pushing teens into schedules crammed with all sorts of activities leaving little time for unsupervised free time. The 2018 Atlantic article cites Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, who suggests that if one considers teen sex as basically unstructured play with friends, less free time means less chance of sexual exploration. Time-intensive helicopter parenting is easy to do for one child, tempting to do for two children, but requires superhuman efforts for three or more children. A 1986 study on parents in Beijing found that 20 per cent of mothers of only children reported spending all their free time with their offspring, compared to 7 per cent for mothers of multiple children.
Studies on potential impacts of smaller families in the realm of intimate relations are sparse, if not non-existent. From a social science perspective, the links I make with decreasing libidos at this stage are speculative. It may just be coincidence that falling family sizes and declining sexual activity are observed at the same time. However, the figurative connection between the rarefaction of children who embody vitality and the diminishment (or redirection) of the vital sex instinct is certainly suggestive. Today sex, not just family, has become a public policy issue in low fertility countries. Japan’s government funds speed-dating services for young people. Singapore in 2012 ran a National Night campaign advertising sex as patriotism. A Danish travel agency tried to coax couples to take holidays, relax and have sex with a ‘Do it for Denmark’ campaign.
Reflecting on whether low fertility will become a menace, Italian demographer, Massimo Livi Bacci, concluded with cautious optimism that population history shows us that fertility tends to remain robust, it is mortality that wipes out civilizations. He does give a caveat, however: as long as the foundations of fertility are not destroyed, by for example, a loss of libido. Low-fertility countries with available data may want to cross analyse their data on falling sexual activity with family structures.
I have not mentioned another societal impact of low fertility—the ballooning populations of elderly—as this issue receives plenty of discussion. Most of it is framed in terms of economic alarm: Who will fund pension schemes? Who will drive consumption? More optimistic observers point out that while the elderly bulge is unprecedented in human history, it may also be an opportunity for societies across the world as they benefit from the calmer wisdom of age. What is certain is that there needs to be active policy that anticipates shifts. Developing countries should seek inspiration in their traditions and architecture shaped by large families to start designing cities that encourage cohabiting between generations, and thus avoid having to create a cabinet ministry for loneliness as exist today in the UK and Japan.
As far as population growth is concerned, today’s world is in many ways a bipolar one, with some regions facing youth bulges and others elderly bulges. Contemporary history has many examples of countries that have gone through youth booms. Some have resulted in violent upheavals and revolutions, others in benign hippy counter-culture. By contrast, there are no roadmaps for elderly booms yet. The writing of these is an on-going process. When they incorporate a heavy dose of increasingly ubiquitous technology, these roadmaps sometimes evoke dystopic fiction. Japanese researchers, for instance, propound with gravitas on the need to consider access to virtual humans for companionship, housework or sex as a human right.
The Erlichs defined population control as the conscious regulation of the number of human beings to meet the needs not just of individual families, but of society as a whole. Those societies have in modern history exclusively been viewed through national or ethnic prisms. Hence the incongruity of countries telling others to slow down their population growth while ringing alarm bells over their own declining populations. Hence, the blithe willingness to discard what is human in the realm of intimate relations for robotic companions untarred by ambiguity. Viewing population issues through a more global prism makes it clear very quickly that there are other options. Demographic challenges, such as ageing populations—and, of course, the challenge of the climate emergency—mean it is crucial to shift to stronger habits of reflecting on issues in a truly global way. Learning to approach population debates in thoughtful, honest and respectful ways is a small essential step. Shifting frames to question trajectories and learn from each other is no doubt another useful step. Reframing is often the first step to seeing new possibilities⎈
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