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Growing pains: Uganda population bomb ticking

Uganda enters its next 50 years of self-rule with its reputation as a demographic renegade well and truly intact, thanks to a mindboggling fertility rate (the average number of children a woman can have in her lifetime), which the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) put at 6.2 in 2011.

One of the highest in the world, Uganda’s fertility rate is the stand-out catalyst to the Malthusian disaster on which the country awkwardly squats. The narrative would have been different, demographers contend, had President Museveni taken a lead role in advocating smaller families.

Instead, between 1995 and 2006, when fertility rates in notoriously childbirth-happy sub-Saharan Africa were on a down slope, Uganda’s fecundity was stalling at 6.7 in the face of Museveni’s message that vociferously hailed a large population.

Currently, the average fertility rate for sub-Saharan African countries stands at 4.64 – a high statistic by any measure, but one which would have been a bit lower were it not for the shenanigans of entities like Uganda. Not that there haven’t been any positive demographic strides in Uganda.

Between 2006 and 2011, the country was rattled out of its stall with the fertility rate falling from 6.7 to 6.2. The UDHS posits that this fall was largely because of a paradigm shift in the apprehension of all things demographic by urbanites whose fertility fell steeply from 5.0 in 1995 to 3.8 in 2011.

Whether the predisposition of Ugandan urbanites to smaller families (remember 3.8 is still some way off the 2.1 replacement rate of fertility) will haul Uganda out of a Malthusian abyss and place it on a right path is anyone’s guess.

For the moment, though, Museveni’s message of a big workforce coming in handy (reinforced by mantras like: your job is to produce children) appears to be striking a chord with rural dwellers whose environs are downright labour-intensive (the more children one has the greater the ability to dot their arable land with plantations of matooke).

It is, therefore, highly unlikely that rural dwellers will in the next so many decades have the same buy-in plugs for birth control as did the urbanites that between 1995 and 2011 doubled their contraceptive use from 15% to 30%.

Owing to this, Uganda’s demography in its next 50 years of self-rule will be uniquely disturbing. It will be disturbing because the United Nations, for one, estimates that Uganda’s population will soar from 33 million people in 2011 to 94 million in 2050 – a stunning rise by all accounts.

This stunning rise will be counterproductive, demographers say, because it won’t leave the country anywhere close to the threshold of enjoying a demographic dividend (the economic benefit raked when the fraction of the working-age population increases relative to children and old people). A high fertility (6.2) and low mortality (85 deaths for every 1,000 live births) squarely puts paid to any hope of a demographic dividend coming to fruition.

Instead of having a demographic dividend, Uganda shall possess a subtle skewed demography in which the rural areas will contrive to keep the country’s median (age at which half the population is younger, half older) dangerously low as the urban centres grapple with an aging population.

In 2062 and onwards, urban centres will spawn many pensioners whom the fragile (and hitherto monopolised) social service will not quite be braced to cater for. The pensioners (generation Y, Z and Alpha folks) will outnumber the working-age population (generation Alpha’s children) in the townships because of the low fertility rates there (which should have come down from 3.8 to 2.1 or thereabout).

With no strong support system, generation Alpha’s offspring will feel the sheer weight of a 4-2-2 sequence where two children find themselves looking after two parents (from generation Alpha) and four grandparents (from generation Y or Z). This dependency ratio will no doubt place a millstone on the lean shoulders of generation Alpha’s progeny.

It won’t be any better in the countryside where children will outnumber old people as well as adults of working age due to high fertility rates and the low life expectancy there. If anything, the outlook there will be more disfigured. So, it could pretty much turn into some kind of domino effect where loss perpetuates loss.

But what if Museveni is right? What if the large population that the president, with four biological children, espouses yields a demographic dividend? What if it shatters the 4-2-2 sequence that threatens to hold generation Alpha’s progeny captive?

Well, for the large population to provide any antidote, it will have to be productive. And not just productive, but super productive, as demand will have outpaced supply. Anything short of this will spawn a Malthusian disaster where means of subsistence go on an upward trajectory.

Demographers have also long stated that Museveni’s pet subject about a large population triggering GDP growth by keeping wages relatively low as well as increasing demand for goods and services is, at best, cherry-picking, and, at worst, flawed.

They insist that it is wishful thinking because a large population in Uganda buttresses bickering by exacerbating the dependency ratio. So, instead of shattering the 4-2-2 sequence, Museveni’s large population could propagate jostles, even full-blown wars, at the reading of wills, in food-insecure markets and water unstable places.

If it is any consolation, Uganda can find solace in the fact that it won’t be the only African country grappling with a large population. The United Nations has forecast that the bulk of population growth shall come from the developing world. UN estimates indicate that Africa’s population will soar from one billion in 2010 to 3.6 billion in 2100.

Surprisingly, the reason why Africa’s population is running amok is not because there’s a dearth of contraceptives. Yes, the dearth of contraceptives is compounding the problem. But Malawi showed that contraception is not a silver bullet.

Malawi raised modern contraceptive use from 17 per cent of women in 1998 to 42 per cent in 2010, but there was no seismic shift in fertility. In fact, fertility fell only a bit. Demographers say this is because Malawians, indeed like many Africans, perceive the fertility question more through the narrow prism of spacing (delaying pregnancies) than resolving to have X number of children and using contraception to stop having more.

As for Uganda, it will need to shatter its cultural resistance and show more political will if it harbours any hopes of shedding its demographic renegade tag.


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