Asia gets the attention, but the real economic revolution is the inevitable growth of an overlooked continent.
Asia gets the attention, but the real economic revolution is the inevitable growth of an overlooked continent.
In the coming decades, we face a revolutionary shift in the balance of world affairs—and it is likely not the one you are thinking of.
Since the 1990s, the idea that we might be entering ana “Asian century” has preoccupied and disorientated the West. However, once we take in view the long sweep of history, the return of China and India to the center stage of world affairs is less a revolution than a restoration.
For most of the last 2,000 years, the great Chinese and Indian empires were the center of world trade and home to the most sophisticated civilizations. Their growing influence in the world today is the rectification of the anomaly that arose in the 1700s as a result of the yawning divergence in per capita income between “the West” and “the rest.” Successive industrial revolutions and waves of colonial conquest created a world in which economic and military power was radically misaligned with population.
Not for nothing, 1900 was the high point of Western racial thought. Although Western public consciousness may have since sought to rid itself of overt racist tropes, it continued to take for granted the anomalous imbalance in economic power between the West and the rest of the world that shaped that thought.
If the economic recovery of China and India was the great shock of the first quarter of the 21st century, the next decades have another revolution in store for us: the astonishing demographic transformation of Africa.
Unlike Asia, the African continent was historically characterized by low population density. As far as records allow us to tell, Africa’s population around 1914 numbered 124 million people, or little more than 7 percent of the world’s population. The slave trade had wreaked havoc over the previous 200 years. But contact with Europeans did not produce in Africa the demographic disaster it inflicted on the Americas. Africa’s populations were hardened through exposure against the ravages of diseases such as small pox. They continued to grow, though slowly, even as tens of millions of young people were taken into bondage.
It was the 20th century that brought a demographic revolution to Africa. Africa’s total population today is some 1.4 billion—an increase of more than tenfold over the course of a mere century—and it is set to rise further in the coming decades.
As Edward Paice explains in his important book Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World, demographic prediction is an uncertain business. But it is unlikely that Africa will not reach 2.2 billion to 2.5 billion inhabitants by 2050. That means, at midcentury, Africa will likely account for just shy of 25 percent of the global population, more than three times its share in 1914.
In the 2040s alone, it is likely that in the order of 566 million children will be born in Africa. Around midcentury, African births will outnumber those in Asia, and Africans will constitute the largest population of people of prime working age anywhere in the world.
The extent to which young Africa will shape the 21st century becomes apparent when we rank-order societies by median age—the age that cuts the distribution of a population in half. The current median age of Japan’s aging population is 48; even allowing for their legendary longevity, many Japanese today will not live to see much of the second half of this century. In China, the median age is 38. In India, it is 28. In Nigeria, it is 18. This means that, barring disaster, a large part of the Nigerian population alive today will live to see the 2080s. With regard to climate policy, for instance, it is their world that we are shaping now.
Of course, forecasting decades into the future is a speculative business. But if we take the United Nations’ central forecast as our collective best guess, we should expect the population of Africa by 2100 to exceed 4.2 billion, at which point Africans will constitute as much as 40 percent of the world’s population. That would be far short of Asia’s 60 percent share today, but it would constitute a revolution, nevertheless.
The sheer scale of Africa’s demographic momentum may come as a surprise. This results from the fact that a long-forecast demographic transition has been happening in Africa at a far slower pace than was expected even a few years ago.
The notion of a demographic transition is closely tied to broader ideas of growth and modernization. As populations benefit from higher incomes and better public health, this tends to result in lower death rates—“death control,” as it is sometimes known. That improvement in conditions is then followed, after a lag, by falling fertility. The degree of the lag has hitherto seemed to be tightly coupled with rates of urbanization, female education, and women’s labor market participation. The net effect of this lagged sequence of falling mortality followed by falling fertility results first in an acceleration of population growth, followed by a slowdown, and, ultimately, stabilization. If fertility falls as far as it has in much of Europe and East Asia, the population may even begin to shrink.
In Britain, where the pattern was first observed, the demographic transition took two centuries, from the 1740s to the 1940s. More recent transitions have been faster. Chile, as one of the richest countries in Latin America, went through the demographic transition between the 1920s and the 1970s. In Thailand and Brazil, the transition period was cut to 40 years.
As Paice shows, it is foolish to generalize about a continent as vast and diverse as Africa. In North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya have undergone demographic transitions as rapid as anywhere in the world. South Africa, too, has seen a spectacular drop in fertility, as have Malawi and Rwanda. At the same time, however, in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, and Sudan, the transition is proceeding at a leaden pace. Mortality has fallen, but fertility has declined only slowly. In Egypt and Ethiopia, where fertility has fallen fast, the sheer sizes of their youth bulges mean that momentum will carry them to huge populations of 160 million and 205 million, respectively, by 2050.
As Paice explains, in many African societies the failure to extend education for girls and to empower women accounts for high fertility rates. But in large parts of West and East Africa, the desired family size remains in excess of five children. Niger is not by accident the country with world’s highest population growth. Women there report wanting to have nine or more children, whereas men claim to want to have 13.
In some places, notably in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, urbanization has gone hand in hand with falling fertility rates. But much depends on the type of urbanization. Nigeria has a similar rate of urbanization as Thailand and Indonesia but a total fertility rate that is three times as high.
According to Paice, surveys show that in some countries, religion and conservative social mores restrict access to contraception. But even where contraception is available, as in Nigeria and Angola, many women of all educational levels and social classes do not use it. And this despite the fact that a Nigerian woman has a 1 in 22 lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, or after an abortion. All told, 20 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide happen in Nigeria. However, any such conclusion must clearly be treated in caution given that myriad informal barriers constrain the ability of Nigerian women to envision and to make free reproductive choices.
As Africans are demonstrating, demographic change is not a mechanical function of modernization. It is a matter of choice.
Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the pace of the transition will suddenly pick up. Africa’s population may stabilize in the same way India’s and China’s are. But over the next 30 years, the momentum is well-nigh unstoppable. The mothers of the children to be born in the 2030s and 2040s have, themselves, already been born. Unless the fertility of those girls diverges in truly radical ways from that of their mothers, an African continent of around 2.4 billion to 2.5 billion inhabitants is the most likely scenario for 2050. Nigeria will be in the lead, with a population somewhere between 350 million and 440 million, most likely larger than that of the United States.
Given the sheer scale of these numbers, discussions of African demography tend to evoke heated reactions. On the one hand, there is doom-mongering and thinly veiled racial anxiety about the prospect of tidal waves of African migrants heading north to Europe. On the other hand, there is the euphoria of “Africa rising” and the promise of youthful and dynamic societies reaping the benefits of what demographers call the “demographic dividend,” the phase in which a national economy enjoys the benefit of having a large share of working-age people.
Either way, the simple fact of the matter is that we have no experience to go on. A scenario in which Africans make up a quarter or more of the world’s population is something new under the sun. And the challenges are immense.
In 2018, prior to the pandemic, Nigeria overtook India as the country in the world with the largest number of absolutely poor citizens. Remarkably, despite the country’s natural resources and its well-deserved reputation as a center of entrepreneurial talent, Nigeria’s GDP per capita has not risen substantially above the level it reached in the late 1970s.
Nigeria holds the dubious distinction of being one of the economies in the world with the highest dollar amount of GDP per kilowatt of electrical grid capacity. That is both a testimony to the improvisational genius of Nigerians and an indictment of the failure to build adequate infrastructure. A country that is a major producer of oil but has no adequate domestic refinery capacity and generates much of its electricity by burning imported diesel fuel is, to put it mildly, failing to make the best of its possibilities.
Nigeria poses in stark form questions that afflict the entire continent. How can Africa’s burgeoning cities obtain the infrastructure and services their inhabitants desperately need?
Across the continent, more than 640 million Africans have no access to electric power, implying the lowest rate of access to electricity—40 percent—in the world. According to the African Development Bank, per capita consumption of energy in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) is 180 kilowatt-hours (kWh), compared with 13,000 kWh per capita in the United States and 6,500 kWh in Europe.
How will Africa’s economies generate the jobs necessary to provide employment and future prospects for hundreds of millions of young people? As Paice points out, to absorb Africa’s exploding youth populations is a challenge comparable in pace and scale to China’s giant wave of urbanization between the 1990s and 2010s. Yet nowhere in Africa has any track record of growth at the Chinese pace.
With more than 40 percent of the African workforce still in the countryside, how can agricultural development be supercharged? And how will both rural and urban communities in Africa adjust to climate change? The World Bank estimates that problems including chronic water shortages may force the internal migration of more than 80 million Africans in coming decades.
The scale of funding needs is immense. In 2018, the African Development Bank estimated an investment requirement of $130 billion to $170 billion per year to achieve, by the mid-2020s, complete electrification, universal access to basic water and sanitation, repairing and extending the road system, and ensuring cellphone coverage, with at least 50 percent of the population within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of a fiber-optic backbone network. Regrettably, that target was not met. To match even Latin America’s inadequate level of capital formation per capita, Africa’s investment rate would need to double.
Given Africa’s low income, savings, and tax rates, much of the initial funding must come from outside. This will add to the levels of debt that already burden many African countries. Whatever the initial source of finance, the loans will ultimately have to be repaid from profits, incomes, and taxes generated by African economies.
These are the age-old questions of development economics. In Asia from the 1990s onward, the problem of mass poverty has been progressively solved. The process is far from complete, but comprehensive development no longer seems out of reach. The same cannot be said for Africa. Indeed, the only example of development to high-middle-income status in sub-Saharan Africa is South Africa, and given its colonial and apartheid roots, it is hardly an example that anyone would wish to emulate. Today, South Africa is afflicted by creaking infrastructure, civil unrest, and mass unemployment.
The days are gone in which anyone would confidently recommend one particular development model. The economic success stories of recent years have followed different paths with far more government involvement in Ethiopia and more market-driven models in Ghana and Kenya. But it is hard to see any economic policy succeeding for long where there are not basic supplies of power, water and basic education. And those needs are in turn linked to the rapidly growing size of the population.
No account of 21st-century globalization can be complete if it does not engage with and incorporate African voices and African analysis as they struggle to come to terms with this gigantic and transformative process of growth, which are one of the great human dramas of our epoch. Yet, as Paice remarks, it remains a striking fact that far too often Africa is “absent … from global narratives.”
The influence of historical assumptions about who should be expected to be developed, about who should be expected to have governmental capacities and technological solutions runs deep. After the disappointment of postcolonial optimism and expectations in the 1970s, Afro-pessimism cosigned the continent to the sidelines.
In institutional terms the blind spots are stark. The G-20 has only one African member, South Africa. Like Latin America and India, Africa has no permanent seat on the Security Council. That is not simply a failing of moral vision and justice. It reflects what is, quite simply, an unrealistic and outdated understanding of the 21st-century world.
We talk about the end of globalization because the great surge in trade between Asia and the West may have plateaued, but Africa’s integration into trade and global communications has only just begun.
When Nigeria has a population of over 300 million its fortunes matter on the global scale. That population is not confined to the countryside but is increasingly urbanized. Even at low levels of per capita income and formal education it is to a considerable degree networked and in contact with the wider world. The potential for conflict, but also innovation and growth is enormous. Cell-phone enabled Somali pirates and payments systems like M-Pesa both demonstrate the ways that Africa might become an innovation hub. In terms of the number of films produced annually, Nigeria’s film industry is exceeded only by the gigantic machinery of Bollywood. More Christians live in Africa than any other continent. By sheer virtue of their size, the way that Egypt and Ethiopia deal with issues of public health and energy development will have global implications. Hobbled as it is by Eskom, its failing electricity utility, South Africa if it is to thrive, must per force become a pioneer of middle-income decarbonization. The Congo Basin peat bog is amongst the largest carbon sinks in the world. It is also home to one of the poorest and most rapidly growing populations on the planet.
The list of examples could be extended ad infinitum. As Howard W French has remarked: “How Africa’s population evolves, and how the continent’s economies develop, will affect everything people near and far assume about their lives today.”
Adam Tooze is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a history professor and director of the European Institute at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, and he is currently working on a history of the climate crisis. Twitter: @adam_tooze