I came across this blog post about the number of countries in Africa (54) after reading about world birth rates on the CIA World Factbook site. In looking at a list of the countries in the world with the highest birth rates, I saw that with the exception of Afghanistan and East Timor, all top thirty were African countries. Niger has the highest birthrate in the world (and is considered the poorest by most measurements) and Nigeria is ranked #13. Seeing those 28 slots taken by African countries made me think that that must be over half of Africa, and it is.
The UN membership roster contains 54 African states, and that of the African Union contains 53. While the AU list includes suspended members, it does not include a count for Morocco, who has decided to stay out of the AU. Thus AU’s implied total can also be said to be 54. Of these, 48 states are found on the actual continent, while 6 are island nations.
However, Africa is about to get a brand new country. Within less than two weeks, South Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not to secede from the rest of Sudan. If it does secede, which currently seems likely, it would mean that the new total will soon be 55, right? Well, no, because the current total of 54 is true only to some degree.
Before I go on: what’s a country, anyway? I’m going to be somewhat untechnical here and use ‘country’…
The reality of falling fertility rates while global ‘population explosion’ goes on is depicted in the Figure above. The relentless growth in population might seem paradoxical given that the world’s average birth-rate has been slowly falling for decades. Humanity’s numbers continue to climb because of what scientists call 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 to 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 1 billion people despite the ravages of AIDS and…
I am currently in Italy analyzing the field data I gathered last year in the Niger Delta. The transition has clearly been challenging, as I am re-adjusting to being a place with clear rules, and where I can spend more time being professionally productive and less time “surviving,” e.g. finding potable water, clean food, sources of electricity, etc. However, one of the more startling thoughts I had my first week here occurred to me when I was roaming through the streets of Florence among a sea of silver-haired adults. I realized that I was only seeing perhaps one baby per day during my daily commute, and almost all of them were with mothers who had clearly immigrated to Italy from another country. I asked myself, “Where are all the babies?”
In subsequent research, I have learned that Italy has the second lowest birth rate in Western Europe this year, at 1.4 children per woman. The CIA World Factbook, a reliable statistical source, says:
A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. Rates above two children indicate populations growing in size and whose median age is declining. Higher rates may also indicate difficulties for families, in some situations, to feed and educate their children and for women to enter the labor force. Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.
In stark contrast, Nigeria has a birth rate of 5. 38 children per woman, almost four times that of Italy. Nigeria has the 13th highest birth rate in the world, in country that is already the most populous in Africa. This average probably would show a stark contrast between low rates in major cities and high ones in villages. As an anecdote, the women I interviewed in rural areas typically said they had 6-9 living children. Just from my observations, I recall that between 1/4 and 1/3 of rural Niger Deltan women I’d see would be carrying a pekin (baby) in a wrapper on their back. No wonder I noticed the missing babies here in Italy.
Italy’s low birth rate is coupled with a low mortality rate and longer expected life spans. The life expectancy in Italy is almost 82 years. Conversely, in Nigeria it is just over 51 years. Italians get 60% more life than Nigerians! Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a youth bulge and has been for decades; it is one of the driving explanations for ongoing violent conflicts in the region. Europe, Asia and Russia do not even have replacement birthrates. While African governments struggle with feeding, educating and housing booming populations, Europeans and Asians are worried about who will pay into the social security necessary to care for aging populations.
Sociologists and economists hypothesize that the poor financial state Italy, Spain, and the U.S. are the reason for plummeting birth rates in those countries, but I will add a caveat. In modern industrialized countries, I will buy the argument that people have less babies during times of economic strain, because in those societies children are financial burdens. However, birth rates in developing African countries remain high because children there are not just burdens, they are also viewed as labor for rural families. In agricultural areas, it makes just as much sense for families to actually produce more children during times of economic hardship, under the belief that they children’s labor will overall produce more resources than the children will consume. This is the reason that I don’t buy the historical argument I have read that the American birth rate in the U.S. went down during the Great Depression because of economic conditions; at that time, as is true in rural Africa today, children could create capital through their labor. The relationship between birth rates and the economy is not so clear to me.