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Africa: population growth, governance, democracy

By Guy Hallowes - posted Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Population Growth

The population of Africa grew from about 230 million in 1950 to 1.3 billion today, almost a five-fold increase, and Africa remains the fastest growing region globally, with the population increasing by around 2.55% annually. The UN has forecast that the population of Africa will almost double again by 2050 to 2.4 billion people – more than a ten-fold growth over the century since 1950.

Individual countries in Africa are growing at an even faster rate. Kenya, for example, had a population of six million in 1950. Today, it has 50 million people – an eight-fold increase – and this is projected to reach 96 million by 2050, a sixteen-fold increase since 1950.


In contrast, the population of Australia grew from 8.2 million in 1950 to 25 million today, a mere three-fold increase, and is forecast to reach 37 million by 2050, a four-and-a-half-fold growth since 1950.

There are a number of issues and consequences that follow from the above figures.

  1. Even relatively wealthy Australia has experienced considerable difficulty in dealing with its comparably low population growth rate, in particular funding basic services to the community such as schools and hospitals. It also has a significant infrastructure deficit, with all levels of government struggling to fund and implement solutions that can keep pace with the demand of the growing population (the political goings-on relating to Sydney's WestConnex furnishing but one example). Inevitably, pressure on infrastructure and services (among other factors) has led to debate within the community over whether the rate of immigration is too high.
  2. Bearing in mind the Australian experience, it is difficult to see how the faster growing and yet vastly more impoverished Africa – or, on a more local level, a country such as Kenya – will contain the impacts (poverty, health risks, social unrest, environmental degradation and more) of their explosive population increase. This is so even if one presupposes a moderately adequate level of governance across the region – yet competent governance in Africa is sadly hard to find (tiny Botswana, with a population of two million or so, is one notable exception). In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa has consistently been the lowest-ranked region in Transparency International's annual Perception of Corruption Index, and Africa more broadly performs similarly poorly in rankings of safety, security and conflict.

It seems clear that Africa, absent of a massive injection of international assistance, will be unable to deal in any meaningful way with the population growth that has already occurred, far less that which is coming its way.


As already mentioned, the majority of countries in Africa suffer poor governance, many being governed by what can best be described as one-party criminal gangs (see, for a discussion, Martin Meredith's The State of Africa) who, under informal patron-client economies, effectively service only a small elite (albeit an elite sufficiently large to sustain the existing government's hold on power). Zimbabwe is an example of one such system. The consequence is that an ever-increasing population at large attracts an ever-lower share of the funds that are available and so receives ever-poorer services. Compulsory education, for example, is rare in Africa; even in Kenya, one of the better-off African nations, primary education is compulsory and free, but secondary education is not. A visitor to the country will notice the huge number of private educational establishments, which indicates how much education is valued, but there is little or no control over the standards of such private establishments. Moreover, even at the 'compulsory' primary level participation in education is undermined by uneven regional access and gender bias. The situation in most of the rest of Africa is even worse.



The developed world often naively assumes that, in the third world, an official commitment to 'one man one vote' provides sufficient guarantee that a democratic process is in place. Nothing could be further from the truth, with Africa as a region again performing poorly on international rankings of democracy regardless of democratic rhetoric.

In Western nations there is enormous institutional support for the democratic system: an independent judiciary, a free press, a military firmly under civilian control and numerous NGOs – often government-funded – addressing social issues such as inequality. Many countries have federal systems (the USA, Germany and Australia being examples) that impose additional constraints on the exercise of executive power. Even with the extensive checks and balances in our own democracies, however, the democratic process faces a growing threat from nationalism, populism and authoritarian leadership – in Europe, in the United States and in our own democracy in Australia.

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About the Author

Sydney-based Guy Hallowes is the author of Icefall, a thriller dealing with the consequences of climate change. He has also written several novels on the change from Colonial to Majority rule in Africa. To buy browse and buy his books click here.

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