A busy market in Kampala. Uganda is not unique in many regards. In most sub-Saharan African countries, social attitudes towards sexuality and family sizes are not changing much, and therefore, African governments have to do more to provide incentives for their populations to use modern contraceptives. Photo: J. Stimp/Flickr

For the most part, sub-Saharan African countries have very youthful populations. Actually, all ten of the world’s youngest populations are all in Africa. Niger is both Africa’s and the world’s youngest country, with an average age of 14.8 years. Uganda follows closely behind Niger as the world’s second youngest population, with an average age of 15.8 – just a year older than Niger. Mali buttons up the top-three bracket with an average age of 16 years.

These astonishing numbers are a result of changing patterns of childbearing and mortality in Africa. Decades of very high fertility – the average number of children per woman – in Africa, combined with rapidly declining child mortality have created a population age structure dominated by young people under the age of 25 years.

Until recently, the average African woman was expected to give birth to 6.5 children over her lifetime. Now, she might have 5.1 children on average, although this does not represent the massive heterogeneity across various countries on the continent. In Kenya, Mauritius, and Botswana, for example, the typical woman in these countries has fewer children on average but in countries like Niger and Uganda or among less educated rural poor women, change in fertility has been minimal, if any.

This youthful African population has often been hailed as being a major advantage to the continent, especially as the ‘graying’ of national populations is taking place in countries with more advanced economies such as Germany, Japan, and Finland, where their populations are increasingly being dominated by older people. An increase in Africa’s working-age population presents a crucial opportunity for its accelerated economic growth. This growth, often referred to as the demographic dividend, occurs when the working population outnumbers children and the elderly, freeing up economic resources as a country’s labour force grows faster than the population that is dependent on it.

Africa rising?

However, the spike in Africa’s youth populations is a two-sided coin. For the optimist, the demographic shift is compelling and plays into the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, with the demographic dividend presenting a possible way out of cyclic poverty in their children’s lifetime. For the pessimist, the numbers are unsettling. There were 1 billion Africans in 2010, and there’ll be 1.4 billion more by 2055.  What kind of future is in store for another billion plus African people? The answer to this very much depends on the policies that African governments undertake to ensure their populations receive quality education, affordable and quality health care, decent jobs, and so on. The demographic dividend is neither guaranteed nor is it automatic. Instead of reaping a demographic dividend, African countries may find that their youthful populations are a barrier to growth and development. This is especially if they maintain the status quo and do not initiate policies that take into consideration the short and long-term implications of this population on basic and critical services, e.g. education and healthcare. In this case, the window of opportunity to realise this economic benefit may pass by as is the case for countries like Tunisia and South Africa.

The struggles of Uganda’s youth

The findings of a year-long study examining the changing youth demographics in four East African Community (EAC) countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda – launched at a Kampala forum on 13 July 2018 revealed that the window of opportunity for these countries to harness their dividend is open from now until 2080 or 2100. Uganda, however, stands out in stark contrast as the country with the highest rate of fertility within this group, and it’s not declining fast enough either. Uganda’s fertility rate has reduced by only 2 children per woman over a thirty-year period, to the current 5.4 children average. The study attributed Uganda’s high fertility to the early onset of childbearing and marriage, the low socio-economic status of women, low levels of female education, poor access to contraception, especially among rural women and youth, and socio-cultural norms that place preference on women having many children.

The reality is that most of Africa is taking too long to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of reducing the rate at which their populations are growing. Further, policies and sustained actions that draw from these policies have an impact on population growth. The large variations in populations across countries on the continent are caused by factors such as levels of education, access to employment opportunities, urbanisation, access to health care, including family planning methods and attitudes towards population growth. These factors aid in explaining why, for example, Uganda’s population is growing faster than Kenya’s or Botswana’s. Women have fewer children when they marry later, start families later, and use modern methods of family planning. Further, infant deaths have reduced in countries that have better education, healthcare, nutrition, transport systems and immunisation.

Uganda has several policies developed in response to its growing youth population. Some of these include its National Youth Policy, the 2nd National Development Plan (2015-2019) and Uganda’s development blueprint, Vision 2040. All acknowledge the double-edged nature of a large youthful population to the country’s future development prospects and propose strategic interventions that, if implemented, have the potential to influence the socio-economic trajectory of the country, and place it onto the path towards a sizeable demographic dividend. A common thread among Uganda’s policies on youth, population and development is the recognition of the need to provide quality sexual and reproductive health services to ensure youth make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. However, to the extent that Uganda still experiences challenges such as teenage childbearing, poor access to contraception, and HIV being the leading cause of death, is indicative that the government’s policies have not been effectively implemented.

Uganda is not unique in many regards. In most sub-Saharan African countries, social attitudes towards sexuality and family sizes are not changing much, and therefore, African governments have to do more to provide incentives for their populations to use modern contraceptives. To ensure success, however, governments and other stakeholders must ensure that conversations on family planning are sensitive to socio-cultural norms. African governments should also invest in education infrastructure to meet the needs of the growing school-age population, and introduce interventions that will improve the quality and relevance of education. This is to ensure students are equipped with skills that match labour market needs. An enabling environment for the private sector is also vital for economic growth. Therefore, governments should increase the range and quality of strategic infrastructure, such as energy, transportation, and information communication technologies, so as to ease the cost of doing business and attract direct foreign investments.

Uganda’s population will keep growing, as will that of most African countries. This growth will place a significant strain on resources and services such as education, jobs, and healthcare. All things considered, the price of inaction for African countries is simply too great, as uneducated, unskilled, unemployed, and deprived youth can also become agents of social unrest, crime, and violent extremism. Countries, therefore, need investments in these critical sectors urgently, if the prospects for a demographic dividend are to be a reality.

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