Reducing Africa's high child dependency burden is key for countries to harness a demographic dividend as this contributes to quality human capital and capital accumulation. Photo:Sam Hawley/Flicker

Interest has peaked among African leaders and development partners on how the continent can transform its rapidly growing population into a transformative force for sustainable development. This is reflected in the many commitments, conversations and efforts on the continent to harness the demographic dividend. These efforts have culminated in the designation of “Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth” as the theme for the summit meetings of the African Union for 2017. The demographic dividend refers to the accelerated economic growth that is initiated by a rapid decline in fertility and mortality that results in a change in the age structure from one dominated by dependent children to one dominated by economically productive working adults. The African Union’s roadmap for harnessing the demographic dividend calls on countries to maximise their chances of harnessing the demographic dividend by prioritising investments in four pillars namely:

  • Employment and Entrepreneurship
  • Education and Skills Development
  • Health and Wellbeing (including family planning)
  • Rights, Governance and Youth Empowerment

As one of the technical leaders working closely with African governments in their efforts to harness the demographic dividend, AFIDEP has partnered with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and the German Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), to organize a lab debate on ‘Investing in Africa’s Youth to harness the demographic dividend’. The main question that will shape the debate is: In light of a potential Demographic Dividend in future, what exactly does it take to make the young generation of Africa the driving force for a bright economic and social future of the continent? The debate will run tomorrow Thursday June 8, 2017 (1.30-2.45pm European time) in Brussels. The lab debate is part of the European Development Days (EDD) 2017 running June 7-8, 2017 in Brussels. EDD is organised by the European Commission and convenes development community each year to share ideas and experiences in ways that inspire new partnerships and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

AFIDEP’s Executive Director, Dr Eliya Zulu, will take part in the debate. In this blog, Dr Zulu shares critical insights and reflections that he will be discussing at the debate on how African countries can enhance their prospects for harnessing sizeable demographic dividends.

The entry point for harnessing the demographic dividend for most African countries is accelerating fertility decline

As recognised in virtually most national development plans in Africa, the high child dependency burden, which is fueled by high fertility, is a major barrier to efforts to improve the quality of human capital and capital accumulation, and the whole development process. High fertility is associated with low investments in health services, education, and savings, and low participation of women in the formal labor market. High fertility also puts considerable pressure on the capacity of economies to create enough jobs for the ever-expanding number of new entrants to the working ages.

According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Data sheet, women give birth to an average or 4 or more births in 40 of the 57 African countries, and birth rates are between 3 and 4 in 8 countries and between 2 and 3 in nine countries that are mostly located in northern and southern Africa. For the majority high fertility countries, which actually currently have a “child bulge”, with more than 40% of the population being below age 15, the primary concern should be prioritising the three critical investments that have been proven to accelerate fertility decline. These factors are: 1) making voluntary family planning universally accessible to all women and their partners who need to delay the next birth or stop childbearing altogether; 2) keeping girls in school and eradicating teenage childbearing and marriages; and 3) accelerating progress being made in reducing child mortality since parents want to have few children they are optimistic that the few children have a descent chance to survive.

Rapid fertility decline will enable high fertility countries to create a “youth-bulge” from the current “child-bulge”. This will enable families and governments to enhance per capita investments in health and education that will ensure tomorrow’s youth are better prepared than the current ones to lead Africa’s socioeconomic transformation agenda. The simple fact is that without creating the “youth bulge”, that later turns into a “working-age bulge”, there is not going to be a demographic dividend to talk about in the majority of African countries.

To harness the demographic dividend, African countries should focus on both today and tomorrow’s youth

One of the main reasons why the demographic dividend paradigm has generated so much traction among African leaders is that it resonates with the very vivid challenge of dealing with the growing number of unskilled and underemployed African youth that virtually every African country is grappling with. While focusing on today’s youth is important, the sole focus on this component of the population is likely to undermine the comprehensive structural transformations that African countries need to undergo in order to optimise the demographic dividends that they can earn. Countries need to have a long-term life-cycle perspective and ensure that children being born today have good health services, nutrition and transformative education throughout the education pipeline. The very young ones should receive universal and quality early childhood education to ignite their thinking and interest in education and prepare them for primary school. Primary education should be reformed to provide quality literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills and set the seeds for innovation and ensure there is universal transition to secondary school. Secondary education systems should be reformed from following examination and knowledge-based curricula to competency-based curricula that will ensure that all kids have the practical transferable or work-readiness skills they need to be practical thinkers, responsible global citizens, acquire and keep jobs, and to be successful entrepreneurs. Tertiary educations systems should build on these strides and be at the forefront in developing youth who will engineer Africa’s innovation revolution that is needed to make the continent a force on the world stage. So, while countries should focus on how to enhance skills and livelihood opportunities for current youth, there should be equal, if not greater, energy in transforming education and health systems to make sure that next generation of youth will not have the same skill gaps as the current youth do.

Low fertility African countries can salvage their demographic dividend by enhancing quality of human capital and job creation efforts

Africa is quite heterogeneous and we should not talk about it as one uniform set of countries. Therefore, policy options for optimising the demographic dividend should be context specific both from the perspective of socioeconomic conditions, but also the stage of the demographic transition where countries are. “Youth bulges” and “working-age budges” have already been created in the African countries with relatively low fertility, mostly located in southern and northern Africa. These countries have already harnessed some demographic dividend, but not to the same magnitude as achieved by some eastern Asia and Latin American countries because the fertility decline was relatively slow and not accompanied with huge investments in human capital development and job creation. Because the window of opportunity for harnessing the demographic dividend will remain open for a couple of more decades in these countries, the level of the dividend can be salvaged by enhancing investments in strategic human capital development focused on sectors of comparative advantage and diversifying their economies to absorb the “working-age population bulges” they are already facing.

African countries urgently need country-specific evidence and technical assistance to move the demographic agenda from rhetoric to action

There is a big danger that the demographic dividend rhetoric can end up as a mere development buzz with no tangible action and benefits for most countries if experts and development practitioners do not urgently move to provide evidence-informed technical assistance in policy prioritisation within each pillar and across the pillars. This should involve practical assistance to policymakers and planners on how to adjust their priorities to put their countries on the demographic dividend path. Many countries lack capacity to do comprehensive policy prioritisation analysis and design implementation-ready priorities when developing development plans. If this gap is not addressed, we are likely to fail to seize the momentous opportunity provided by the designation of the “harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth” as the 2017 theme for the African Union. Domestication of the demographic dividend agenda should also ensure active participation of the private sector given their critical role in engineering economic performance and job creation; civil society organisations given their critical role in enforcing accountability; and other development actors. The specific interventions and investments to be made under the broad intervention areas have to be determined at country level. Even then, countries need to know that the demographic dividend wheels need to move together even if more emphasis is on some wheels depending on the stage of the demographic transition in specific countries.

Ultimately, what will make the difference is strong political will, determination and action to steer transformative development

Ultimately, what will determine whether African countries maximise the demographic dividend they can harness or not will be strong political will, from the highest level and at all levels of government and society, and the determination to chart a different development course for Africa. African citizens also have a huge role to play in driving their own development destiny, and therefore their leaders’ ability to get their citizens to buy into the long-term development vision and proactively work towards it will be critical. This is what responsible governments should be doing anyway. The ‘Asian Tigers’ did not set out to harness the demographic dividend. The leaders realised that their countries were not going to develop if they continued to sustain socioeconomic systems that propagate low status of women and lead to high fertility and high child dependency burdens; that developing quality development infrastructure that balances rural development and value addition chains in agriculture and industrial as well as service based urban economies; that transformative education is the ultimate tool for building quality human capital and engineering the innovation and vibrant private sector that is needed to create quality jobs and accelerate inclusive economic growth; and that all these cannot be achieved if African countries do not enforce accountability in use of public resources and address corruption, while ensuring efficiency in service delivery. If African countries do all these, albeit at different levels depending on local contexts and stage of the demographic transition and development process, the “youth bulge” that will result from reduced fertility will give them an extra impetus to accelerate the achievement of the socioeconomic transformation goals articulated in African Union’s Agenda 2063 and national development visions – that is what the demographic dividend means in practice.

 

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