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Nowadays, the international development community is abuzz about the strong economic performance of sub-Saharan Africa.  This year alone, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates growth in the region at 5.4 percent, and only ‘developing Asia’ should do better.  Often this kind of economic boon is accompanied by falling fertility rates that usher in a ‘demographic dividend’ – or a window of opportunity when dependency ratios decline and the labor force increases relatively.  But rapid population growth in the West African sub-region in particular may slow down economic development and make more difficult the formation of human capital (education and health) and the reduction of high poverty levels.

So, will West Africa be able to capture the benefits of a demographic dividend?  The answer to this question hinges on how fast West Africa can bring down its high fertility levels.

A new study by Jean-Pierre Guengant for the French Development Agency (AFD) provides a detailed analysis of long-term population and economic trends for 12 Western African countries, i.e., the eight countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), plus Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania and Nigeria.

The study acknowledges that economic growth has returned to the region since the mid-1990s.  However, revenues per capita have not increased much.  Assuming a yearly population growth of 2.5 percent and an economic growth of 5 percent per annum, it will take almost 30 years to just double the income per capita, which is already very low to start with.  Worse, total poverty levels ($1.25/day) remain high, between 30 and 50 percent of the population in all countries.  Poverty reduction is all the more challenging for ever growing populations, and so is the formation of human capital.

The AFD analysis offers new population projections, which are made consistent with increases in contraceptive use.  This methodology was proposed by Guengant and myself in a 2011 United Nations Expert Paper.  The intermediary scenario (Medium variant) of the UN population projections assumes sharp fertility declines that are not warranted given the slow increases in contraceptive coverage.  These are currently progressing at the snail pace of 0.5 percentage point per year in West Africa, which is not enough even to achieve the high scenario (High variant) of the UN projections (assuming a slower decline in fertility).

So what are the policy implications?

First, rapid declines in fertility spearheaded by strong family planning programs appear to be one of the prerequisites for sub-Saharan Africa to be able to reap the benefits of a demographic dividend.  The emphasis here is on rapid.

Second, human capital investments and poverty reduction efforts will require huge increases in education and health budgets, to the tune of at least 7 percent per year for the next two decades, a figure well above the current economic growth.

Third, West Africa and Africa at large need to capitalize on the ‘golden moment”, i.e., the boost of family planning efforts that will be discussed at the upcoming family planning summit scheduled in London on July 11.  The time has come for African governments to reenergize their family planning programs.

Too often African leaders and their partners want to believe that the demographic dividend is just around the corner.  This is wishful thinking.  The demographic dividend is not a given, and its chief precondition – the sharp decline in fertility – has not even started in earnest in many West African countries.

For the demographic dividend to present itself, voluntary family planning programs that respect human rights are necessary to trigger much needed fertility declines.  These programs will be useful in their own right as they will serve the needs of millions of African women who want to space and limit their children, but do not have the means to do so.  As these programs will help decrease fertility, they will also facilitate female universal education, which in turn will accelerate the fertility decline.  In short, stronger family planning programs and a faster fertility decline will help usher one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for the countries to reap the benefit of a demographic dividend.