The lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah in Accra
From The Economist
CAREFULLY stepping round another heap of fetid refuse in Sodom and Gomorrah, it is easy to despair of Africa’s future. Accra’s notorious slum is aptly named. Here, about 30,000 families (no one knows for sure how many) crowd into a warren of hastily thrown-together shacks on the fringes of Ghana’s capital: there is no power, sewerage or running water, diarrhoea and other diseases are rife and deadly fires rapidly take hold. It seems to contain all that is wrong with modern Africa—too many people, deep poverty and the failure of inept or corrupt governments to do anything to help. Yet Sodom and Gomorrah also has a more hopeful story to tell.
Africa is undergoing a “demographic transition”. As our briefing shows (see article), African women are now following their sisters in Asia and the rich world by bearing steadily fewer children. Admittedly, Africa is lagging behind Asia by about 20 years, and the continent’s fertility rates are still high, but the trend is clear. In Mozambique in 1950 a woman had, on average, 6.5 children over her lifetime; now she has five. In Ethiopia the figure has dropped from seven to five; in Côte d’Ivoire it has almost halved from its peak; in Botswana it has more than halved. The only exceptions are war-torn places such as Congo.
HIV/AIDS, killer of mothers and fathers in their prime, is the miserable cause of part of this shift. But more important is the decline in birth rates when people leave the countryside. And the overflowing chaos of Sodom and Gomorrah is part of the fastest urbanisation in history. Africa’s rush to the cities is not just changing the location of Africa’s populations, it is changing their structure, too.
In Latin America and Asia this transition yielded a huge economic gain, called the “demographic dividend”. As birth rates decline, the proportion of children shrinks and the working-age population bulges, as is happening now in Africa. That can kick-start industrialisation. Factories employ low-skilled farmers fresh from the country, which increases productivity and prosperity, which creates demand, and so it goes on. Some studies reckon that demography explains as much as a third of Asia’s economic growth.
It is this opportunity that Africa must prepare for. The “dividend” is not automatic. It has to be earned. A productive, healthy workforce could lift large parts of Africa out of poverty, but an expanding cohort of jobless, idle and frustrated young men will create political and social instability. Just think of the riots and deaths sparked by rampaging hordes of youths in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Success breeds success
There are plenty of reasons to fear the worst. Poor farming and environmental degradation could lead to hunger, poverty and strife. Instability, corruption and family breakdown could break the cycle of industrialisation and growing productivity.
Hence the need to get African policy right: a green revolution to keep rural hunger and poverty at bay; peace and contraception to keep the demographic transition on track; education and better governance to create a workforce able to exploit the chances on offer; and services to help people in slums like Sodom and Gomorrah join the formal economy.
Such desires are hardly new—indeed each stands on its own merits. What is new is the sense of urgency. The demographic dividend comes around only once. Eventually the bulge of energetic, working-age people becomes a bulge of dependent, elderly ones. The transition will pass in a couple of generations—the blink of a demographic eye. Africa must not fumble its best chance at prosperity.