The Demographic Dividend, Revisited

Originally posted on the PRB blog.

(March 2014) The 8th Annual Conference on Population, Reproductive Health, and Economic Development was held in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2014. The PopPov Conference should obviously return to the topic of the demographic dividend. This dividend becomes possible when fertility declines sufficiently to increase the number of the working age population relative to the rest of the population and to reduce the investments needed to care for children (an improvement in the dependency ratios). It follows the acceleration of economic growth, which depends equally on human capital formation (education and health) and on the adoption of adequate macroeconomic policies.1

At the moment, the possibility of such a dividend is a great subject of debate in discussions of population and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa. The demographic evolution on the continent is marked by striking contrasts between, on the one hand, the rapid decline of mortality levels (especially infant and child mortality), and on the other, the slow erosion of high fertility levels. This contrast contributes to accelerating population growth in the region and does not bode rapid demographic change in the future. This does not prevent some experts from having an optimistic vision of the demographic future of the continent. They anticipate enormous economic growth such as that recently experienced in the countries of East Asia.

In contrast, others such as the global strategist Gérard Chaliand are more pessimistic. He writes: “Even if one observes, for several years, economic growth in SSA, the number of unemployed and little, or badly, educated increase apace, giving rise to bloody conflicts.”2

An intermediary position was voiced in the new report Africa 2050, which was just published under the aegis of the Emerging Market Forum.3 This more nuanced approach could be qualified as the “Yes, but”: yes, one will be able to capture the benefits of a demographic dividend in Africa, but one will need definitely a much faster fertility decline than the one that has been observed so far.

It is essentially this last position that was expressed during the PopPov Conference panel “Demographic Dividend: Policy Perspectives.” The five panelists underscored the diverse political aspects of the debate, as well as the varied programmatic interventions that are possible. The vision set forth by Eliya Zulu, director of the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), is very broad and covers the main array of political actions: fertility, development of human capital, economic reform and job creation, and finally good governance. Zulu insisted that we are still far from achieving the demographic dividend in Africa. His vision is both dynamic and proactive, while insisting on the urgency of accelerating efforts already underway.

Alex Ezeh, Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in Nairobi, insisted that actions are needed at the national level. Each country has its own particular demographic dynamics, he underscored. Hence, the population policies ought to be conceived and implemented at the national level.

In my presentation, I also repeated this message about the necessity of interventions at the national level. Moreover, the rationale for working at the level of the States is developed in detail in my last book.4

The contribution of Jane Kiringai, economist at the World Bank office in Nairobi, highlighted the implications of the demographic dividend for women’s employment. In effect, the increased labor force participation of women (especially the better educated ones) would begin the virtuous cycle of demographic change (working women have fewer children) and economic growth.

Finally, Miriam Were, founder of the UZIMA Foundation in Kenya, recalled efforts led by nongovernmental organizations. According to her, population policies should not be solely directed from the top down; they ought to also move from the bottom up, through individual and collective initiatives. This is well-illustrated by activities at the UZIMA Foundation (“uzima” means “abundance of life” in Swahili), which works to build the capacity and power of youths.

Overall, it appears more and more clear that the demographic dividend is not automatic. Rather, it must be earned by putting in place, at all levels, the policy tools that would allow rapid modification of population age structure and would push through macroeconomic reforms, all in order to facilitate achieving the demographic dividend. The supply-side interventions offering family planning services should be complemented by creating strong demand for lower fertility. It would also be appropriate to raise African’s political leaders’ awareness of population issues. As to African demographers and economists, they ought to apply their technical know-how to also become agents and even advocates of change.


  1. J.F. May, Agir sur les évolutions démographiques, Brussels : Académie royale de Belgique, 2013, pp. 25-28.
  2. G. Chaliand and Michel Jan, Vers un nouvel ordre du monde, Paris : Le Seuil, 2013, p. 64.
  3. T. Ahlers, H. Kato, H.S. Kohli, C. Madavo, and A. Sood (Edits), Africa 2050. Realizing the Continent’s Full Potential, New Delhi : Oxford University Press for Centennial Group International, 2014.
  4. J.F. May, op. cit., pp. 18-20 & 122-125.