Young population a goldmine for sub-Saharan countries: UN

18 November 2014

Sub-Saharan countries can realise a demographic dividend as much as US$500-billion a year for 30 years if they repeated the East Asian experience by making the right investments in young people.

According to The State of World Population 2014 report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on 18 November, sub-Saharan countries constitute a huge chunk of the 1.8-billion young people in a world population of 7.3-billion.

The report states that about nine out of 10 people between the ages 10 and 24 live in less developed countries. In Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, half the population is under 18.

“In Chad, Niger and Uganda, half are under 16. In six countries—five in sub-Saharan Africa and Israel—populations are actually “youthening’ rather than ageing, meaning their median age is projected to decline from 2010 to 2015,’ according to the report.

In countries like Burundi and Niger, this youthening process will continue until 2020 before reversing. A report by the World Economic Forum (2014) stated that Nigeria’s GDP per capita would be almost 12% higher by 2020 and 29% higher by 2030, simply as a result of demographic shifts and increases in life expectancies.

These shifts in the age structure towards younger populations present an unprecedented opportunity to catapult developing economies forward through a “demographic dividend’. The report gives an example of the “economic miracle’ experienced by East Asian economies and says a similar development can happen in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 1950s and 1960s, several East Asian countries invested heavily in young people’s capabilities and in expanding their access to voluntary family planning, enabling families to start families later and have fewer children. The “dividends’ for these countries were immense. The Republic of South Korea, for instance, realised per-capita GDP grow about 2200% between 1950 and 2008.

The report describes a demographic dividend as “the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population, 15 to 64, is larger than the non-working-age share of the population, 14 and younger or 65 and older’.

But a demographic dividend depends on how well countries create an enabling environment for growth, according to the report. More importantly, countries should create good conditions for young people to make a safe and healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood, acquire the skills they need to find good jobs and succeed in a dynamic economy, enjoy their rights and realize their full potential.

In addition, there should be policies in place that empower young people. These policies should dovetail with efforts to actively engage young people in decisions that affect their lives and shape their future.

“Today’s record 1.8-billion young people present an enormous opportunity to transform the future. Young people are the innovators, creators, builders and leaders of the future. But they can transform the future only if they have skills, health, decision-making, and real choices in life,’ says UNFPA executive director Dr Babatunde Osotimehim.

Countries striving for a demographic dividend should ensure the gains result in growth that benefit all people, according to Osotimehim. “It is easy to talk about the demographic dividend in terms of money, savings and economic growth, which have so far excluded many. The demographic dividend must be harnessed to archive inclusive growth and offer opportunities and well-being for all,’ he says.

SAinfo reporter