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Birth rate key to African economy

         Date: 2012-08-10

           Tag: Africa, Africa economy

Summary: Good news from Africa: After two decades of bloody anarchy, Somalia is finally on the mend.Bad news from Africa: The situation in Mali is awful. The idiotic military coup in March that opened the wa…

Good news from Africa: After two decades of bloody anarchy, Somalia is finally on the mend.

There is something resembling a government coming into being in Mogadishu, with much help from African Union troops -- although the country's most popular comedian, Abdi Jeylani Marshale, famous for his parodies of Islamic militants, was assassinated a week ago.

Bad news from Africa: The situation in Mali is awful. The idiotic military coup in March that opened the way for Tuareg tribalists and Islamist extremists to seize the northern half of the country isn't really over.

The ignorant and brutal young officers who made the coup are blocking the arrival of 3,000 African Union troops, Mali's only hope of ever regaining control in the north, because it would undermine their own power.

Violence has broken out again in Ivory Coast; there's hope of a peaceful end to the violent quarrel over oil between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan; Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is running for president again at the age of 88.

Too many names, too many places, too much news. Even Africans cannot keep up with the news.

Is Africa going forwards, sideways, or nowhere at all?

The surfeit of news is inevitable in a continent that contains half a hundred countries, and the bad news will always jostle the good news aside.

But things really are getting better in Africa, and quite quickly, too.

The entire continent is finally growing economically. Many African economies stagnated in the first three or four decades after decolonization, but over the past decade the gross domestic product of those 50 countries has grown at an average rate of 5%.

The growth is starting from a desperately low base, but the magic of compound interest means that a 5% growth rate will double the size of the economy every 14 years.

So there really is hope that most Africans can escape from poverty in the next generation -- but on one condition: The birth rate must fall faster.

Current projections see Africa doubling its population to two billion by mid-century. That means an average population growth over this entire period of almost 2% a year.

If the economy is growing at 5% and the population is growing at 2% annually, that only leaves room for a 3% growth in average income. That means a doubling time of about 23 years for African average incomes, so they will only triple by 2050. That's not enough.

African average incomes now are so low that tripling them would still not create the degree of prosperity and security that people in other continents are coming to expect. Worse, it would not give African governments the resources to cope with the huge damage that climate change will do to the continent.

There is enough potential cropland in Africa to feed twice the current population in the present climate, but it's far from clear that this will remain true in a two-degree-warmer world.

If African governments invest enough in agriculture now, they can probably keep everybody fed.

If not, the long-term future of the continent is probably widespread political violence and gradual economic collapse.

It's a race. Grow average incomes fast enough and you probably survive the coming storm. Otherwise, you lose all you have gained, and more besides. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

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