If you wish to gain insight into Africa’s recent economic rise, go to the border crossing between Burundi and Rwanda. On the Rwandan side you will find colorful posters advertising mobile phones, whereas in Burundi the asphalt street ends after a few kilometers and turns into an unpaved road. The two countries could not be more distinct from each other.
Rwanda represents progress and hope. Like in other African countries, a middle class and a service sector have emerged. In contrast, Burundi is regularly ranked amongst the world’s worst countries in a diversity of aspects – no matter which study – and is part of the “Africa” that has defined the continent´s public perception for the past decades. For some journalists and experts, it seems to be clear that Burundi is first and foremost Africa’s past, while Rwanda’s model casts a light for the future of the continent. Indeed, cover stories such as TIME’s “Africa Rising” from 2012 are based on solid numbers. The World Bank projects GDP growth to continue at around 5 percent throughout the next years.
It is a danger.
However, these indicators are misleading: The prospects of sub-Saharan Africa do not depend on foreign investors’ money and cannot be analyzed based on the amount of advertisement posters. Instead, it is Africa’s mothers who will decide what their continent is going to look like in the not-too-distant future. In around 100 years Nigeria’s population will be comparable to China’s, but in an area the size of Texas. Within the same time span, Africa’s population is likely to quadruple. Instead of one billion people, four billion Africans will have to make do with resources that are already scarce and insufficient today. In Burundi, this evolution could prevent any possible economic and political development and even sources of hope such as Rwanda face major challenges.
Population growth does not necessarily have to be a problem: It can become an opportunity if certain positive economic conditions are met. Sub-Saharan population growth, however, is strongest in those countries that perform worst economically. To imitate Asia’s rise, first of all, African governments would have to create an enormous amount of jobs. Demographic change is a catalyst: If it develops parallel to a strengthening economy, it can cause long-term wealth.
In Africa, on the other hand, the population growth is more likely to lead to a catastrophe because parallel to the growth itself, an additional shift will impact any outcome. While children have made up the largest part of Africa´s population so far, the average age is rising. Instead of defenseless children, we will see more young adults with families who want and need to work. But over the last ten years, African economic growth has outrun employment rates, implying that working-age Africans do not fully benefit from the rising GDP. Inequality combined with growing competition for employment will have another, even more important consequence: In contrast to children, young adults are victims who can defend themselves. Young men in particular tend to use violence if they consider their future prospects to be bleak. The resulting political instability would disrupt the fragile economic improvements African countries have witnessed recently and scare foreign investors. Hence, to the south of the Sahara, demographic change is not an opportunity. It is a danger.
Furthermore, countries such as Burundi would not remain the only ones affected. Political instability and floods of refugees could rapidly spread to better-performing countries. The example of Rwanda especially demonstrates why this demographic threat is more than one of many possible scenarios. The government in Kigali is one of the few that is aware of the immense impact such an evolution could have. Throughout the last few years, Rwanda has launched programs to counsel mothers regarding their family planning, which have the aim to decrease birth rates. Although Rwanda´s birth rate is now indeed falling, population growth will continue upward because demographics take generations to adjust. In fact, despite family planning being one of the Rwandan government’s main efforts, the country’s population will double within the next 20 years and quadruple by 2100. Whether or not Rwanda’s economy will be able to cope with refugees, unstable neighboring countries, and its own growing population is hardly predictable.
Strengthening women’s rights
Both NGOs and governments face a pressing and enormous task: They have to strengthen women’s rights and provide them with the needed resources to let them decide about their family planning independently and responsibly. Amongst the possible measures are “cash for work” programs, which employ large scores of workers and give women a chance to save their earned money for the education of their children. Some of these projects already exist in rural Rwanda, but much more remains to be done.
Meanwhile, cities such as Kigali have seen the emergence of new business branches, as well as the construction of banks and large-scale enterprises. It seems as if Rwanda’s economy has begun its race to catch up with the country’s population growth.
However, not much time is left: Contrary to its economy, demographic change is not endangered by any chance of stagnation in the foreseeable future.