Behind the refugee emergency in the Mediterranean, many Italians/Europeans see a larger and more dramatic reality: the African “demographic bomb”, a kind of massive and relentless natural disaster. Predictions of population increase on the Dark Continent are not subject to the critical scrutiny of empirical verification; considered certainty. Combined with North-South disparities, these trends in birth rate in Africa “must” fuel gigantic migratory movements, of which the current catastrophic crossings of the Mediterranean would only be a precursor. The worst is yet to come.
Demography corrects itself
Can this scenario not be questioned, because it is now part of our common sense? But demography is not an exact science, even if some demographers tend to present it as such. Evidence: The most reliable forecasts about the direction of the birth rate and therefore of the population, those made by the United Nations, are constantly being corrected. So they were wrong in previous versions. The good news is that they are adjusted downwards. But this good news is almost ignored, shrouded in general silence, with some laudable exceptions like The Economist.
A positive example for Nigeria
The fact is that the birth rate in Africa is changing and developing in the right direction, that is, downward. Take, for example, Nigeria, the most populous African country with a population of 213 million. From one decade to the next, the United Nations revised its projections of population increase and “downgraded” as much as 100 million Nigeria’s projected population for 2060. The UN also lowered by as many as the 350 million it attributes to Nigeria at the end of the century. The increase continues, and now the United Nations is allocating more than half a billion people to Nigeria by the end of the century. But after subtracting a whopping 350 million, it means that previous projections (dating back a decade ago, I repeat) are set sensationally. So you have to be very careful so far.
What is happening to force the most authoritative international demographer to backtrack so quickly and at truly embarrassing numerical proportions? It happens that reproductive habits adapt, even among African women, these habits are not an established fact. It should come as no surprise: Africa is finally following a trend that has already occurred in almost all parts of the world, including in Asia which until recently was considered the other “population bomb”.
Mali, Senegal and Ghana, the trend is common
In Nigeria, to keep the most important example, average fertility has fallen in just five years from 5.8 children per woman to 4.6 children. There’s still a lot more to do, but the regression is stark: in just five years! Nigeria is by no means an isolated case, and the trend is general: Mali saw average women’s fertility drop from 6.3 to 5.7 children in six years, Senegal “lost” one child per woman in a decade, and Ghana fell from 4.2 to 3.8 in just three years. . We must not focus on the absolute numbers of reproduction per woman, which are still very high compared to us, we must instead recognize the direction of travel, and the development that has already taken place in so few years. It is a film that has already been seen, not only in Asia but in the Black Continent itself where the northern and southern ends (the Maghreb countries and South Africa) have already established themselves among countries with a high average birth rate, not higher as in the recent past.
What drives you to have fewer children?
The determining factor behind this decline in the birth rate is well known: girls’ schooling. And the more women study, the more liberated they are in every sense of the word, not only for the economic autonomy they gain but also for the greater cultural autonomy. The more educated women become masters of their reproductive behaviour, gradually freeing themselves from the conditioning of their fathers, husbands, religion and traditions. Moreover, there is a more common fact: if girls go to school, they delay the age of marriage, and when they marry later they start having children later, and therefore they have fewer children.
Female education in Africa is improving, though not as fast as one would like. But advances in education are not the only reason behind declining fertility and birth rates. Another phenomenon is taking place, which in a certain sense acts as a “substitute” for the school. It is civilisation. Africa is experiencing a massive and noisy exodus from the countryside to the cities. The continent is rapidly transforming into a metropolitan area, characterized by massive metropolitan agglomerations such as Lagos, Nairobi, Cairo, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa and many more. Internal migration from agricultural areas to cities is another strong factor in declining birth rate. Girls who move from the countryside to urban centers, whether they study or not, adopt more “modern” and value models. Thus, among other things, they have fewer children. The explanations are of various kinds, perhaps affecting economic reasons: in the city, the jobs available to women are less compatible with frequent pregnancies and motherhood. In addition, the cost of raising children in urban environments increases. The fact is that there are fewer children in urban areas of Africa than there are children in rural areas of Africa. And all of Africa became less peasant and less citizen.
Who will see you again: Club of Rome
The demographic apocalypse associated with the Black Continent has finally been denied even by one of the most famous institutes of its disaster: the Club of Rome. Founded in 1968 at the Accademia dei Lincei but then moved to Winterthur in Switzerland, the Club of Rome is a non-governmental organization that brings together scholars and scholars of various disciplines and has close relations with international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He had his moment of notoriety when, in 1971, he published The Limits to Growth report. This report, signed by a group of academics, predicted the depletion of natural resources due to the increase in population. He was steeped in “Malthusian” ideology (from the name of the economic priest Robert Malthus, who lived in the 19th century: always contradicting the facts and always influential in spite of everything). The Club of Rome report of 1971 pioneered the alarming and ecologically disastrous current that, two generations later, would give birth to the teenage version of Greta Thunberg. The Limits of Development was condensed, in the popular Vulgate, with the concept that “we are too many to live on this planet.” From energy to agriculture, population pressure has been described as unsustainable. Since then, the world population has doubled, and agriculture has made such tremendous progress that it has produced surpluses (unfortunately, we still die of hunger, but less than in the past. In any case, the cause of malnutrition is poverty and poor distribution, not Cause of malnutrition.” The soil is not sufficiently fertile).
False prophecy success
The Limits to Growth seemed to be right two years after its release, when in 1973 OPEC decreed an oil embargo on Western countries and unleashed the first energy shock. Some did not understand that it was a crisis fabricated for geopolitical reasons, and instead believed that predictions of a shortage in the Club of Rome had come true. But Malthusianism in that report was met with sensational denials in the following decades. Other than the “limits to growth”, economic miracles have been taking place on a massive scale since the 1980s, particularly in China and India. For half of humanity, development has just begun, and it will bring unheard of, unprecedented benefits in human history.
Self-criticism? Better late than never
Today, the Club of Rome is less well-known than it was then, but it is the protagonist of a late self-criticism that relates specifically to the African “demographic bomb”. In a recent report, this institution admits that the “bomb” in question will be defused because, according to its latest reviews, population growth in sub-Saharan Africa will halt in 2060, 40 years earlier than previous predictions.
How long will it take for these dramatic reversals, these whispering but incisive self-criticisms, to make sense? The idea that the African population is destined to grow frantically, out of control, has settled among the hardened clichés of our time. And to eliminate public places it takes a lot of time, a lot of work. It’s time to start this review, instead of giving in to intellectual laziness and continuing to put ourselves into our own stereotypes.
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