Professor Sachs Outlines Model for Slowing Africa’s Population Growth

December 11, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

The Columbia Population Research Center, which is housed within the School of Social Work*, hosted Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs on December 12, 2013, for a talk entitled “Africa’s Demographic Transition and Development.” Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

We present the introduction and first hour of his talk in the following two videos:



Key Points:

  • Earlier this year, UN demographers revised their official projections of the world’s population upwards. The reason? Data collected from African countries revealed that the average number of children per woman was higher than previously estimated (4.9 children per woman).
  • According to the United Nations Population Division, which tracks demographic data from around the world, the population of Africa will double from around 900 million today to around 1.8 billion in 2050. And by the end of the 21st century, it is projected to exceed 4 billion. Such a population explosion is practically unprecedented in human history. (Nigeria will have almost a billion people by 2100, within range of surpassing China in population.)
  • A population this size is not compatible with Africa’s economic development goals. Increased population puts excessive demands on resources, social services, schools and roads. Water and food resources will only get scarcer if they have to be divided among more and more people.
  • Excluding Nigeria, Africa’s boom will be centered on the continent’s sub-Saharan region. Sub-Saharan Africa stands out in terms of fertility rates and disease rates (malaria is a crucial driver), with causation in both directions. But for cultural and religious reasons, it is hard to slow down the population rate.
  • In light of these realities, Sachs calls for public health investments that will reduce childhood mortality. According to his economic model, if African governments can manage to undertake a major public health campaign aimed at reducing fertility rates quickly, the population could reach replacement by 2040. Once you reduce fertility rates, you will have more working age population relative to total population (a better “dependency ratio”). More people get educated, more foreign investment comes in, and more people go into manufacturing, which lifts GNP per capita (how wealth is measured).

* Of the 37 population research centers funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the CPRC is the only one to have been founded within a school of social work. Its co-founders are Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor Irwin Garfinkel of our School and Professor Constance A. Nathanson of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.