Africa should focus research on population growth challenges

Africa should increase investment in research and education to develop the much-needed human capital and knowledge economy that will help solve the challenges associated with rapid population growth that could surpass the current projections, says Alex Ezeh, professor of global health at the Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

He says the projections the United Nations released in 2022 could be under-rated. Expectations are that the rate of population growth in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will rise, while slowing in most of the developed nations.

Ezeh was addressing delegates at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public Health Research Day and Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) conference held in South Africa from 14-15 September 2023. CARTA is hosted by the African Population and Health Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

Basic services in danger

Population decline and growth in LMICs affect all age groups, though differently, Ezeh said. By 2100, Africa may be home to more than half the global population. At the same time, the number of countries experiencing population decline will continue to grow. Ezeh projected that, by the end of this century, there will be at least 154 countries with negative population growth.

Ezeh said the focus on population decline is a European model and of little relevance to LMICs. For example, the population of Niger is growing 4% faster than projected.

He warned that African countries would not be able to sustain the ever-growing population under the status quo where basic services such as education, access to clean water and healthcare, which are already inadequate, will continue to deteriorate.

“Even if you take away corruption, there is no way for the government to help residents access health, education, nutrition and jobs with that rate of growth. Expectations would not be met and current levels of governance, whether military dictatorship or democracy, will begin to crumble.

“These are real challenges for the future of the continent, and we need to learn about them. In this global style, the diversity of demographic experiences calls for an honest and well-reasoned approach to address both the continuing rapid growth in some regions and rapid decline in others. We are in a global community, and it is important to make sense of some of these diversities so we can reconcile them.”

Implications should be understood

According to Ezeh, Africa should beware of repeating mistakes other countries made in the past. As such, he called for robust programmes that invest in the youth across the continent and research to drive the much-needed knowledge economy.

“We need to understand the implications of population growth and decline. Without research and clarity on what these things would be, we will continue to throw money into the problem without solving it.”

He said South Korea has spent US$200 billion since 2006 on cash benefits to families with children as the country grapples with the challenges of low birth rates. “What if you adapt the policy to changing norms in society so that women do not have to decide between a career and their families, or single women can decide to raise their children on their own?”

In an interview with University World News, Ezeh said countries have to invest in critical health programmes such as nutrition to make sure cognitive development in children is optimal. “When we now think of producing researchers who can help find solutions to such challenges, we need to support universities to help the youth develop the critical skills needed to be productive in society.”

Human capital is about the possibility of every human to achieve their potential and the universities are at the centre of this,” Ezeh said, adding that knowledge is what will drive the innovations needed to address the challenges that come with larger populations.