Faculty Featured in New Book on African Demography

The continent of Africa will undergo extraordinary population growth in the 21st century.  Projections indicate that the population will double: from one billion in 2015 to two billion in 2050, and to possibly four billion by 2100.  Can Africa exploit its changing demographics – and especially its changing age structure – to spark economic and social development?

Assistant Professor of International Health John May, Ph.D., teamed up with Hans Groth, M.D., of the World Demographic & Ageing Forum to explore this question.  Together they edited a book, Africa’s Population: In Search of a Demographic Dividend, featuring several leading scholars.  Two chapters were authored by Assistant Professor of International Health Vincent Turbat, Ph.D.

“Africa is coming back to the world demographic scene because of the fantastic population expansion that is going to take place this century,” said May.  “This is an issue that is often overlooked by policymakers, but has huge consequences: migration flows, poverty, rapid urbanization (i.e., slums), and more.  However, there is also potential for Africa to capture the benefits of a demographic dividend.”

The “demographic dividend” was termed by demographers and social scientists during the East Asian “Economic Miracle” of the late 20th century.  The “Miracle” was driven by sharp drops in mortality and fertility rates, resulting in less dependents and more workers.  This opened a window of opportunity, revolutionizing the region as a manufacturing powerhouse.

The book investigates whether a similar transformation is possible on the African continent.

“The problem in Africa is that the mortality rate is falling, but fertility decline has been very slow [and protracted],” explained May.  “If fertility were to decline sharper and more rapidly, it is possible that the continent would capture the benefits of a first demographic dividend – an economic surplus brought about by these changes.  If the products of the first demographic dividend are well-invested, it is possible to reap a second demographic dividend later on.”

African fertility is high; especially in the sub-Saharan region, where the average woman has around five children.  To have a controlled fertility rate (2.1 children per woman), regions must achieve a 75 percent rate of modern-method contraceptive use.  In sub-Saharan Africa, this rate currently stands at 26 percent.

“Africa is urbanizing rapidly,” said May.  “So, there might be some room for improvement in the next two or three decades.  Eventually, fertility will probably decline a bit sharper and faster in many African countries because of a lot of factors: ideational changes, the roll of mass media, empowerment of women, etc.”

A New Metric for Dependency

It’s not just about birth and death rates, however.  An accurate estimate of the dependent population is critical to predicting the continent’s future.

Turbat argues that demographers’ definitions of dependency are insufficient because they ignore economic implications.  His theoretical chapter proposes an “economic dependency ratio” to identify the true overhead burden of responsibility on working age populations.  Turbat hopes that this new concept will allow for more precise appraisals of economic potential vis-à-vis demographic change.

“If you have a very high unemployment rate, young people will remain dependent despite reaching the legal working age,” explained Turbat.  “You still need people to provide for them.  The economic dependency ratio, which measures the proportion of people actually working compared to those who are not working and therefore need to be supported by others, is a much better proxy to estimate the opening of the window of opportunity for the demographic dividend.”

Turbat’s research has led him to believe that Africa will not fully capitalize on its demographic window of opportunity.  However, he argues that it is likely that parts of the continent and segments of its population will make gains.

“Big companies are investing where the labor force is cheapest,” he said.  “Investment in these [African] countries – even if salaries are very low at first – will have a multiplier effect within the economy.  The result is that the demographic dividend is going to be much lower than what it could be because [countries] are not implementing the right policies.  But, by the same token, I am almost convinced that they are going to reap some benefits.”  

Contributions from Georgetown Students

When he’s not teaching demography courses at Georgetown, May serves as a visiting scholar at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).  He has recruited several Georgetown students as interns at PRB, where they helped prepare Africa’s Population and other publications.

Turbat, too, counts on student support for his research.  Data for his chapters were compiled and organized by research assistants from the M.Sc. in Global Health program.  In his courses, Turbat encourages students to engage with the economic implications of demography.

“[Our programs] have a health and development focus,” he said.  “Today, when you work on development, the demographic dividend is a fundamental concept.”

May agrees.

“It’s important for students in this department to get exposed to the economic and demographic challenges of Africa,” said May.  “Many of them will do a stint of [field research] there.” 

Indeed, over the past decade, Georgetown’s global health students have conducted semester-long field research at premier health research centers in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Namibia, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, and Tanzania.  Many students have addressed issues directly related to demography, including contraceptive use, prenatal care, insurance schemes, food security, and more.

Championing the Demographic Dividend

May and Groth envision their book as an accessible reference for policymakers, researchers, and strategic planners.  To that end, the editors are leveraging their professional networks to promote the potential African demographic dividend.  Recipients of the text include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and other world leaders.

This Fall, May and Turbat will present their research at an international demography conference in Cape Town, South Africa.  May intends to “focus [the presentation] on the policies to obtain the demographic dividend, including in health, gender, education, governance, and economic investment.  [Global] leadership is not fully aware of demographic issues.”

Other meetings featuring the book are being planned at the World Bank in Washington, as well as in Ethiopia and Uganda.  May and Groth will call for investments in health and infrastructure, as well as policies that facilitate new jobs. 

“Once you’ve improved the labor market and generated a larger surplus, you need to [invest it well],” prescribed Turbat.  “That’s a big issue with developing countries, because a lot of their surpluses are used to purchase goods that cannot be used for the growth of the economy.  It’s a sequence of events.  First, you need to improve the demography.  Second, you need to improve the labor market.  Third, you need to improve investment and trade with other countries.”

Where to Find Africa’s Population

Africa’s Population: In Search of a Demographic Dividend was published by Springer in June 2017.  The book is available for purchase in hardcover and e-book on the publisher’s website.  Georgetown University Library has ordered a copy, which will be accessible to students and faculty on the main campus.


By Richard Pera, Program Manager, Department of International Health

Georgetown University’s Department of International Health offers two interdisciplinary academic programs: a B.Sc. in Global Health and M.Sc. in Global Health.

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