HOW unusual is Africa’s demography? If you take a selection of countries, from Algeria and Tunisia in the north to Botswana and South Africa in the south, you may answer: not that unusual. In the early 1960s those nations had fertility rates of between 5.5 and 7.5, meaning the average woman there could expect to have that number of children during her lifetime. That was about the same as fertility in Brazil, China, Indonesia and Mexico at the time. Now, all the countries have similar fertility rates of between 1.5 and 3.0. The main difference is that the Asian and Latin American nations saw their fertility decline at a fairly steady pace over the past 50 years, whereas the African ones saw their fertility stay high until the mid-1980s, then fall sharply.
But a recent study by two French-speaking demographers, Jean-Pierre Guengant and John May*, casts doubt on this picture of convergence between Africa and the rest. The north and south of the continent, they say, are exceptions. Most of Africa is catching up too little, too late. The result is that the continent’s overall population will rise sharply, its big cities will grow alarmingly, and though its labour force will also expand (which is potentially good for growth), its coming “youth bulge” will be hard to manage. They conclude that governments must do much more to encourage and improve family planning.