Gates Foundation highlights Africa’s demographic challenge

High population growth in Africa’s poorest countries is putting decades of progress in jeopardy. We must invest in human capital to avoid a crisis, says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Held to coincide with the UN General Assembly and attended by luminaries from the worlds of business, philanthropy and celebrity, the Bill & Melinda […]


High population growth in Africa’s poorest countries is putting decades of progress in jeopardy. We must invest in human capital to avoid a crisis, says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Held to coincide with the UN General Assembly and attended by luminaries from the worlds of business, philanthropy and celebrity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers event in September offered a glitzy platform to drive progress towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. While guests in New York were treated to feelgood musical performances and inspirational stories, billionaire technologist Bill Gates left attendees in no doubt that Africa faces its most serious threat yet from the continent’s startling pace of demographic change.

“To put it bluntly, decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling,” wrote Bill and Melinda Gates in the Goalkeepers Data Report. “This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else… extreme poverty is becoming heavily concentrated in sub-Saharan African countries. By 2050, that’s where 86% of the extremely poor people in the world are projected to live. Therefore, the world’s priority for the next three decades should be a third wave of poverty reduction in Africa.”

While those warnings may fly in the face of optimists predicting that Africa will receive a “demographic dividend” from a spike in the young, Gates’ stark vision of the future under a worst-case scenario was illustrated by detailed projections. By 2050, more than 40% of the world’s extremely poor people will live in just two African countries, according to the Gates Foundation – Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nigeria’s population is projected to jump from 190m today to 429m in 2050, with the number in extreme poverty expected to increase from 81m to 152m. Meanwhile, the population of the DRC will more than double to 171m, with over 70m of those expected to be in extreme poverty.

“Sub-Saharan Africa represented a relatively small slice of extreme poverty in 1990, but because [poverty] has fallen so quickly in East and South East Asia… you can see that the sub-Saharan slice is becoming a very substantial part of the pie,” Gates told the attendees. “By the end of the century its almost getting to the point where half of the babies on the planet are not just born in sub-Saharan Africa but overwhelmingly in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa.”

Countering the crisis

And yet far from being a counsel of despair, the Goalkeepers event attempted to rally support for a range of health and education solutions to counter the looming demographic crisis that Gates believes lies in wait if effective action is not taken. Central to this fightback are investments in “human capital” – defined as the sum total of the health, knowledge and skills of the population. The Gates Foundation estimates that significant investments in human capital could bring an 88% increase in GDP per capita in Africa by 2050, compared to a 39% increase under a status quo scenario and 0.1% decrease under a scenario “if we regress”.

“To create this third wave of poverty reduction, sub-Saharan Africa’s young need the same level of investment in their human capital. Of course the size of that investment is going to be very large because of this population growth… and so human capital has never been more important. In sub-Saharan Africa for this youthful generation we need to get a lot of resources there and help these countries build their systems.”

Yet with treasuries across the continent continually stretched as a result of variable economic growth, weak tax bases, resource dependency, poor governance and corruption, there was a conspicuous lack of detail around where these funds will come from. Speaking at the event, an outspoken Emmanuel Macron, president of France, pledged increased financial support for climate change, health and education in a bid to tackle the demographic bulge. “One of the critical issues we have regarding African demography is that this is not chosen fertility – I always say present me the lady who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, nine children,” he said. “Education is the answer to avoid the worst and maximise the opportunities in African countries and the rest of the world and properly monitor demography, because it will be chosen demography.”

Yet with wealthy nations subject to ever-increasing donor fatigue and the aid scepticism of populist leaders, African governments themselves will have to come up with ever more funds for their own development. The Gates Foundation will doubtless continue to help by disbursing billions of its founder’s funds. But while diplomatic, Gates used a press conference with journalists from Asia and Africa to hint that Africa’s leaders will have to assume greater responsibility for their own development, expressing veiled frustration with Nigeria’s revenue collection efforts.

“In terms of Nigeria it’s a super important country, almost double the population of the next African country,” he said. “It’s got this population growth that can be an incredible opportunity. Today, particularly in the north, the health and education systems aren’t as strong as they need to be, and even the scale of resources the government has is not very high because right now people question that if you raise taxes, will you really spend that money in a way that has substantial benefits? If they see that money being spent well then the permission to grow those resources will be quite strong.”

But despite hinting at the necessity of Africa’s contribution, there was only limited discussion of the crucial role of the continent’s dynamic and expanding private sector and the necessity of critical infrastructure projects, suggesting that there remains a gulf between the worlds of philanthropy and business.

Unlocking productivity

Yet ever the Silicon Valley dreamer, Microsoft founder Gates pins his hopes on the potential of a wave of young Africans to contribute to economic growth via innovation and technological breakthroughs. Goalkeepers helped to concentrate minds on the health and education improvements – and the resources  needed to enable this. 

“Investing in young people’s health and education is the best way for a country to unlock productivity and innovation, cut poverty, create opportunities and generate prosperity. Human capital is not a magic bullet, but it has played a pivotal role in the success of emerging economies around the world,” says the Data Report

David Thomas in New York

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