In the German author Ernst Jünger’s strange and rather unsettling 1929 novel, Das abenteurliche Herz (The Adventurous Heart), there is a sort of diary entry. Here, Jünger recounts how he as a child on a summer holiday was lying in his parent’s hothouse. In the stifling heat, he thought that it couldn’t get much hotter in Africa, where he dreamed of living one day.
And yet. It must be hotter there. After all, it was the not-yet experienced that made Africa so tempting.
When he grew up, Jünger did go to Africa and lived out his dreams of noble hunting in the pre-modern and wild nature, but it isn’t this part of Jünger’s point that this article is about. The point is that Africa always exceeds our – the West’s – conceptions of Africa.
When the Africa of reality exceeds the Africa of imagination, we could call it a Peters’ Projection moment.
In the late 1960s, German filmmaker Arno Peters sparked off a major social protest movement to replace the world maps hanging in Western classrooms. These maps, which still are the most common in the world, are drawn per the so-called Mercator projection, named for the Flemish 16th century geographer Gerardus Mercator. In Peters’ view, the Mercator projection was a major reason why people in the global north didn’t take problems in the global south seriously. This is because Mercator’s maps don’t reproduce the relative sizes of nations and continents correctly, but let them become larger and larger the further from the Equator they are. Hence, Greenland e.g. looks as big as Africa.
Instead, another map should be used, Peters suggested, which he had from the English priest James Gall, who drew it in 1855. On this map, the real – and rather shocking – proportions were revealed. Africa is, with its more than 30 million km2, almost 15 times as big as Greenland. Africa is so enormous that it surprises you when you realise exactly how enormous it is. This is the Peters’ Projection moment. And this shock is the subject of this article.
A lot of people had a new sort of Peters’ Projection moment when the UN in late 2015 presented the report World Population Prospects – The 2015 Revision. Here, you could read that 39 percent of the world’s population by 2100 would be African, and the world population would have grown from the 7.3 billion people of today to 11.2 billion. In other words, within 85 years, 4.4 billion people will live in Africa compared to 1.2 billion today, and Africa will account for almost all of the overall global population growth in this century. Africa once again shows itself to be bigger than we imagined, but now, the consequences reach far beyond maps and the imagination.
Poverty and children
When the UN’s 2015 report was published, the famous Swedish professor, doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, co-founder of Gapfinder Foundation, which collects and presents development data, tweeted that population growth in Africa was “the biggest change of our time”. The question is what the change will be – bright or dire?
As the Financial Times’ Africa editor, David Pilling, wrote last summer, it is either/or. If the right policies are put in place, the continent’s demographic development could well be the future engine for global growth, production and innovation, just as the development in Asia has been in the last 20-30 years. If not, he warned in his rather sceptical analysis, in the future, “mass migration, terrorism and conflict [will] beckon. It is in the interests not just of the Africans, but of the whole world, that Africa grasps this nettle.”
The UN report explains that the population growth derives from a combination of factors, not least the result of so-called intended progress. The most important such progress is the reduction of child mortality, which was number four on the list of the Millennium Development Goals that UN’s member countries committed to under the Millennium Summit in 2000. Globally, this figure, which covers children aged 0-5, has since 2000 dropped from 71 per 1,000 births to an estimated 50, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, the figure has dropped from 142 to 99 per 1,000 births. In the same period, life expectancy has increased significantly, by six years.
Globally, Africa is still at the low end with a life expectancy of 60 years, but life expectancy is rising faster in Africa than elsewhere. This is once again a result of intended progress such as disease control. However, it is only in combination with the most important factor – the high birth rate, which hasn’t declined as expected – that we get the massive growth. Out of 21 countries in the world with high birth rates (where the average woman has more than five children), 19 are in Africa. Especially the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Tanzania are experiencing high growth.
Population growth in and of itself need not be a problem. The point is that very high birth rates and poverty leading to social instability seem to be connected in a vicious circle, where poverty makes people have more children, which in turn aggravates poverty. Even though the poverty trend is moving in the right direction, 75 percent of the world’s poorest nations are African, according to the US non-profit organisation The Borgen Project – and so are the ten countries where the most people live in extreme poverty, says Gallup World.
Precisely this coexistence of poverty and high birth rates worries the UN. In the otherwise sober report, it is warned that this combination will make it harder for the national governments to “eradicate poverty and inequality, combat hunger and malnutrition, expand education enrolment and health systems, and improve the provision of basic services.”
It is of course this very cocktail of factors that leads to political instability, religious fanaticism, war and mass migration – things that are already the order of the day in several African countries. South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Sudan take the first four places in the 2016 index of so-called fragile states by the US think tank The Fund for Peace. Of the subsequent 25 countries in the index, 19 are African.
Overall, 27 of Africa’s 57 nations – 58 if you count St. Helena – can be found in one of the three most severe categories (alert, high alert, and very high alert). This is where Pilling’s pessimistic scenario risks being born. Seen in this light, Africa’s destiny, as Pilling also writes, will be decided by the ratio of economic growth and population growth.
Alright, that is the pessimistic background on which the future of Africa and the rest of the world is evaluated. How can it ever become anything but a humanitarian disaster? The short answer from the UN, think tanks, politicians, and a wide range of NGOs, is that if we succeed in slowing population growth, the current growth may be the very key to the positive scenario that Pilling wrote about. This is shown by the international think tank Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC), which in its ranking of the most cost-benefit effective development projects lists ‘universal access to contraception’ as the second most effective project (out of 19) to invest in over the next 15-25 years.
In the so-called Post-2015 Consensus Report – which is a boiled-down version of the 17 goals and 169 targets in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – CCC’s researchers find that universal access to contraception will return 120 dollars for every dollar spent. Overall, it is estimated that universal access will cost 3.6 billion dollars, but ultimately create a dividend of 432 billion dollars. According to CCC, this ratio is only exceeded by the advantages of expanded global free trade.
The point for CCC – as you can read in their Assessment Paper, written by the think tank’s two researchers in this field, Hans-Peter Kohler and Jere R. Behrman (both professors at the University of Pennsylvania) – is that lower birth rates are ‘crucial’ for key nations’ ability to exploit the ‘demographic dividend’. This dividend consists of the growth opportunities in having the share of a country’s population of working age (15-64) larger than the rest. On the one hand, the large labour supply will attract investments, especially in manufacturing, and on the other hand, families and the state could invest relatively more in educating the relatively fewer children. The reason for the focus on this factor, is that exactly this ‘demographic dividend’ was the basis for the success of China and the Asian ‘tiger economies’ towards the end of the 20th century, according to the UN (UFPA), IMF and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman.
This prospect that Africa could replicate the Asian success drives a lot of the optimism we find among, for example, The Economist, McKinsey, Rosling, Future Agenda and others that have a bright view of Africa’s future as the world’s next engine for growth, production and innovation. This is why Bill Gates’ Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charity organisation, in 2012 pledged to use USD 140 million a year on the dissemination of and access to contraception. This pledge was in 2015 expanded with an extra USD 120 million until 2018; a 25 percent increase. As the Indian economist and World Bank Vice President Kaushik Basu wrote in a blog post on Africa and the demographic dividend: “The time has come for Africa to seize the day.”
Who will inherit the Earth?
Not everyone, however, approves of the strong focus on birth rates, wider access to contraception, and population growth. One dissident is the US history professor Matthew Connelly. In books like Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, as well as articles and BBC radio shows, he has uncovered the historic fear among Western politicians, activists and scientists of the poor masses. Connelly’s point, as he wrote in an essay for The Wilson Quarterly in 2008, is that far beyond family planning, couples are convinced to have smaller families with arguments of “economic security, education, and basic health”. He also encourages “would-be humanitarians” to listen to the people they want to help rather than simply assume that they know best.
A similar criticism and appeal comes from the Norwegian professor in developmental studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo, Morten Jerven. In books like Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It and Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong, Jerven – who holds a PhD from the London School of Economics in economic history – has in recent years criticised the statistical basis that, as we have seen, drives much of the understanding of Africa and its development policies.
“The prognoses that the UN has laid out are very weak and can really be questioned,” Jerven tells SCENARIO. “Nigeria, unlike Denmark and other European countries, doesn’t have any nearly 100 percent exact civil registry that keeps close tabs on how many are born and die. In Nigeria and many other African countries, quite a lot of people don’t get registered – and haven’t been historically. It is naturally difficult to know how many. Some guess at more than half the population, and the lowest estimate is 25 percent. This makes it hard to say anything certain about population growth.”
Nor does he give much credence to the alternative of instead comparing differences from one census to the next: “In 1991, there were 80-90 million people in Nigeria, and then in 2006, we counted 140 million. But if we counted 20 million too few in 1991 and 20 million too many in 2006, we get a growth of 3-4 percent, even though the actual growth is 2. Hence, it has been agreed that population growth in Nigeria is 2.8. Yet there is no basis for this figure. That’s the case in many countries,” he says.
“This makes me conclude that population growth in Africa is overestimated.”
Jerven is also sceptical of the narrow focus on population growth, for, as the industrial revolution in the West showed, social factors change in relation to each other. “If you get a larger population, it changes the entire economic structure as well as political conditions,” Jerven says. However, Jerven’s criticism doesn’t leave him in the pessimist camp regarding Africa’s future – quite the contrary.
“Fear of the future and population growth among the poor is a standard conservative fear that I don’t share,” he explains. In Jerven’s optic, Africa’s problem is economical; namely that the sort of growth that the continent has experienced so far, primarily from oil and gas, may well have generated a lot of money, but not a lot of jobs.
“Apart from Ethiopia, African nations have not replicated the sort of growth we have seen in Europe, the US, and Asia since the 19th century, which derived from a large supply of labour that was made use of. Seen in this light, Africa’s problem is more one of too small a population than too large,” Jerven concludes.
Lions on the move
Connelly’s and Jerven’s points are another version of our Peters’ Projection moment. We think we know what Africa and Africa’s problem is, but our conception of Africa – and how we understand and engage in it – aren’t shaped in a value-less or interest-free space. It is quite obviously easier to make population growth a problem to be solved than it is to open our markets – particularly in Europe, where the EU is very protective of its agricultural production. Here, Morten Jerven agrees with another of the conclusions from the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. Free trade will by far – with a 2,000 to 1 dollar ratio – be the most beneficial for Africa.
“We must let go of some of our fear and self-interest and begin to act more liberally in relation to Africa, instead of building fences and sending in the navy to stop migrants in rubber rafts. For one thing, it is a terrible humanitarian position, for another it is impossible to change the fact that it is easy to enter Europe – and go back again. The West gets rich from making lucrative contracts for e.g. natural resources in Africa, but we are very reluctant to open our markets to African goods. We need to stop that. And we need to stop pretending to help them with contraception clinics.”
That Africa’s problem – and solution – is more about economics than about population growth, is also the conclusion of Hans Rosling, who has long argued that the global trends are moving in the right direction, also in Africa:
“It’s not population growth that is the problem – it’s the extreme poverty that is the underlying reason”, he told BBC last year, where he also concluded that: “We have a possibility that Africa will repeat what Asia did.”
The consultancy firm McKinsey’s research branch, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), made a similar prognosis in 2010 in the report Lions on the Move. Here, too, the view is very positive about opportunities in the demographic dividend and growing urbanisation in Africa. With this and its vast reserves of raw materials, noble metals and farmland, Africa may play an “increasingly important role in the global economy,” the report concluded. MGI maintains this conclusion in their update from October last year, Lions on the Move II – though a little more cautiously and with more admonitions to the African nations, as annual economic growth, which was 5.4 percent in 2000-2010, had declined to 3.3 percent towards 2015.
These are the positive estimates, but the declining growth leads to frowns, as in David Pilling’s analysis. Most recently, the World Bank has also set a more pessimistic note. They see the vicious circle rear its head, where low growth creates a basis for conflict, violence, migration and general political instability, which in turn lead to low growth.
“Addressing these sources of vulnerability and building resilience is critical to maintaining solid growth rates and sustaining the progress made so far in reducing poverty and achieving the development goals,” the World Bank concludes.
Scepticism, if not direct pessimism, can also be found from UN Habitat, particularly when it comes to urbanisation, which e.g. MGI sees as positive. Growing poverty in large cities and megacities may undermine “the aspirations of broad-based human development and prosperity for all,” as the organisation writes in a report from 2014, The State of African Cities.
In other words, Africa – and our perception of Africa – vacillates between either and or. No matter what, we in the West haven’t had our last “Peters’ Projection moment”. Not even in the sense that feelings of fear and sympathy may make us act in error. On the occasion of the African Union’s jubilee, Ghana’s former president, John Mahama, made an appeal to the rest of the world on behalf of the continent that may be worth listening to:
“We no longer need sympathy – we need fair partnerships and opportunities.”