‘Youth Bulge’ Can Drive Prosperity
Global ‘population momentum’ refers to the phenomenon of falling fertility rates while global population explosion continues. The relentless growth in population might seem paradoxical given that the world's average birthrate has been slowly falling for decades. Humanity's numbers continue to climb because of population momentum.
As a result of unchecked fertility in decades past, coupled with reduced child mortality, many people are now in their prime reproductive years, making even modest rates of fertility yield huge population increases. This, according to John Bongaarts of Population Council in New York, translates into adding more than 70 million people to the planet every year, which has been happening since the 1970s. The African continent is expected to double in population by the middle of this century, adding one billion people despite the ravages of Aids and malnutrition.
What does this augur for Kenya? The 2009 Population and Housing Census suggested that Kenya’s population had increased by close to one million people annually over the period 1999 – 2009, equivalent to at least two children being born in Kenya every minute. Reacting to these findings, the Hon Minister of State for Planning, National Development and Vision 2030, stated: “This high rate of population growth has adverse effects on spending in infrastructure, health, education, environment, water and other social and economic sectors. In order for the government to achieve Vision 2030 goals, there is need to invest in education to meet the demands of the growing school age population and the demand for future manpower. In addition, critical investment will be required in family planning services, health and other social and economic sectors to improve the welfare of Kenyans.”
Kenya’s total fertility rate, estimated at 8.1 in 1977/78, declined to 4.6 children per woman by 2008/9 (KDHS 2008/9). This drop was largely attributed to increasing use of modern contraceptive methods over the period, and improved educational status of women. The contraceptive prevalence rate (all methods) in married women rose sharply since the early 1980s; rising from 17 per cent in 1984 to 33 per cent in 1993 to 39 per cent in 1998 and 46 per cent in 2008/9.
Kenya’s population growth rate increased steadily from 2.5 per cent in 1948, peaking at 3.8 per cent in 1979, this being one of the highest growth rates ever recorded. Demographic transition began to manifest in 1989, when population growth rate declined to 3.4 per cent and further to 2.5 per cent in 1999, but estimated at a higher level of 2.9 per cent in 2009. Owing to the past growth rates Kenya’s population is still youthful with nearly half being aged 18 years or younger.
This is a clear demonstration of demographic momentum - a phenomenon of continued population increase despite reducing fertility rates, which is brought about by waves of large populations of young persons entering reproductive age in successive years. This may in part explain the addition of one million people annually to Kenya’s population referred to above, contributing to the 'youth bulge'.
The immediate question should be, 'Can Kenya make the youth bulge a source of strength not a threat?' Indeed, this can happen with better planning and viable economic policies that mobilise the potential of every corner of this nation. Current investments in family planning (including the proposed Joint Global Birth Control Push), are not expected to translate into slowing of population growth rate in the short or medium terms, but should be viewed as a long-term goal.
On the other hand such investments can empower women and men or couples as the case may be, with the choice when to have children and how many to have. This will lead to healthier families, and more productivity. Strengthening of institutions and equitable investment of resources can unleash a strong and better-educated workforce with fewer children to support and no elderly parents totally dependent on them. In such a scenario, the youth bulge, generated by our recent demographic history and fertility decline through effective fertility regulation measures, could transform to the driving force behind economic prosperity in future decades.
The writer is a former chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Nairobi.